A potential loss of carbon associated with greater plant growth in the European Arctic

Abstract

Rapid warming is expected to increase plant growth in the Arctic1, and result in trees gradually colonizing tundra2. Models predict that enhanced carbon (C) storage in plant biomass may help offset atmospheric CO2 increases and reduce rates of climate change2,3,4. However, in some Arctic ecosystems, high plant productivity is associated with rapid cycling and low storage of soil C (refs 1, 5, 6); thus, as plant growth increases, soil C may be lost through enhanced decomposition. Here we show that, in northern Sweden, total ecosystem C storage is greater in tundra heath (owing to greater soil C stocks) than in more productive mountain-birch forest. Furthermore, we demonstrate that in the forest, high plant activity during the middle of the growing season stimulates the decomposition of older soil organic matter. Such a response, referred to as positive priming, helps explain the low soil C storage in the forest when compared with the tundra. We suggest that, as more productive forest communities colonize tundra, the decomposition of the large C stocks in tundra soils could be stimulated. Thus, counter-intuitively, increased plant growth in the European Arctic could result in C being released to the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

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Figure 1: C and N storage in the two ecosystems.
Figure 2: Seasonal variation in the 14C content of the respired CO2.
Figure 3: Respiration measurements and partitioning calculations.

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Acknowledgements

This work was carried out within the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded Arctic Biosphere Atmosphere Coupling at Multiple Scales (ABACUS; www.abacus-ipy.org) project (a contribution to International Polar Year 2007–2008) under grants NE/D005833/1 and NE/D005884/1. We are grateful for the help of the staff at the Abisko Scientific Research Station. We thank L. English for assisting with the laboratory analyses, and J. Zaragoza-Castells and A. Bennett for their helpful comments on the manuscript.

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P.A.W., I.P.H., D.W.H. and M.S. designed the study. Soil surveys were carried out by I.P.H., M.S. and P.A.W., and 14CO2 collection and analysis was led by M.H.G. The plant community surveys were designed and carried out by B.J.F., V.L.S. and G.K.P. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Iain P. Hartley or David W. Hopkins.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Hartley, I., Garnett, M., Sommerkorn, M. et al. A potential loss of carbon associated with greater plant growth in the European Arctic. Nature Clim Change 2, 875–879 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1575

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