Letter | Published:

Soil carbon release enhanced by increased tropical forest litterfall

Nature Climate Change volume 1, pages 304307 (2011) | Download Citation


Tropical forests are a critical component of the global carbon cycle1 and their response to environmental change will play a key role in determining future concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2)1,2. Increasing primary productivity in tropical forests over recent decades has been attributed to CO2 fertilization3, and greater biomass in tropical forests could represent a substantial sink for carbon in the future3,4. However, the carbon sequestration capacity of tropical forest soils is uncertain and feedbacks between increased plant productivity and soil carbon dynamics remain unexplored5,6. Here, we show that experimentally increasing litterfall in a lowland tropical forest enhanced carbon release from the soil. Using a large-scale litter manipulation experiment combined with carbon isotope measurements, we found that the efflux of CO2 derived from soil organic carbon was significantly increased by litter addition. Furthermore, this effect was sustained over several years. We predict that a future increase in litterfall of 30% with an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 150 ppm could release about 0.6 t C ha−1 yr−1 from the soil, partially offsetting predicted net gains in carbon storage. Thus, it is essential that plant–soil feedbacks are taken into account in predictions of the carbon sequestration potential of tropical forests.

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We thank F. Valdez, D. Ureña and A. Worrell for field assistance, S. J. Wright and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute for hosting our fieldwork, A. Stott for help with isotope analyses, N. Isaac and S. Freeman for advice on statistics and N. Ostle for helpful discussions. Soil water content data were provided by the Terrestrial-Environmental Sciences Program of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This research was funded by an FP6 Marie-Curie Outgoing International Fellowship to E.J.S, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Department of Plant Sciences, Cambridge.

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  1. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Maclean Building, Benson Lane, Crowmarsh Gifford, Wallingford OX10 8BB, UK

    • Emma J. Sayer
    •  & Matthew S. Heard
  2. Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EA, UK

    • Emma J. Sayer
    •  & Edmund V. J. Tanner
  3. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, PO Box 0843-03092, Balboa, Ancon, Panama, Republic of Panama

    • Emma J. Sayer
  4. Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Lancaster Environment Centre, Library Avenue, Bailrigg, Lancaster LA1 4AP, UK

    • Helen K. Grant
  5. Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

    • Toby R. Marthews


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E.J.S. and E.V.J.T. conceived the experiment. E.J.S. designed and carried out the experiment. T.R.M. and E.J.S. analysed the data. H.K.G. carried out the isotope analyses. E.J.S. and M.S.H. wrote the paper. All authors commented on the analysis and presentation of the data.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Emma J. Sayer.

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