Letter | Published:

Climate fails to predict wood decomposition at regional scales

Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 625630 (2014) | Download Citation



Decomposition of organic matter strongly influences ecosystem carbon storage1. In Earth-system models, climate is a predominant control on the decomposition rates of organic matter2,3,4,5. This assumption is based on the mean response of decomposition to climate, yet there is a growing appreciation in other areas of global change science that projections based on mean responses can be irrelevant and misleading6,7. We test whether climate controls on the decomposition rate of dead wood—a carbon stock estimated to represent 73 ± 6 Pg carbon globally8—are sensitive to the spatial scale from which they are inferred. We show that the common assumption that climate is a predominant control on decomposition is supported only when local-scale variation is aggregated into mean values. Disaggregated data instead reveal that local-scale factors explain 73% of the variation in wood decomposition, and climate only 28%. Further, the temperature sensitivity of decomposition estimated from local versus mean analyses is 1.3-times greater. Fundamental issues with mean correlations were highlighted decades ago9,10, yet mean climate–decomposition relationships are used to generate simulations that inform management and adaptation under environmental change. Our results suggest that to predict accurately how decomposition will respond to climate change, models must account for local-scale factors that control regional dynamics.

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Thanks to A. Neupane and J. Snajdr for laboratory assistance, and P. Raymond, O. Schmitz, D. Menge and B. Taylor for comments on earlier drafts. For site-use permissions we thank the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (San Felasco Hammock State Park), the US Forest Service (Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory and Chattahoochee National Forest), the Yale School of Forests (Yale Myers Research Forest) and the Warnell School of Forestry (Whitehall Forest). Wood chemistry was determined by the Yale Earth System Center for Stable Isotopic Studies. Research was supported by US National Science Foundation grants to M.A.B. (DEB-1021098), J.R.K. (DEB-1020415) and the Coweeta LTER Program. P.B. was supported by the RC of the Institute of Microbiology.

Author information


  1. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, 370 Prospect Street New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

    • Mark A. Bradford
    • , Thomas W. Crowther
    • , Daniel S. Maynard
    •  & Emily E. Oldfield
  2. SUNY Buffalo State, Biology Department, 1300 Elmwood Avenue Buffalo, New York 14222, USA

    • Robert J. Warren II
  3. Institute of Microbiology of the ASCR, Vídeňská 1083, 14220 Praha 4, Czech Republic

    • Petr Baldrian
  4. National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA

    • William R. Wieder
  5. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, 1200 Amsterdam Avenue New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Stephen A. Wood
  6. Biology Department, University of Central Florida, 4000 Central Florida Boulevard Orlando, Florida 32816, USA

    • Joshua R. King


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M.A.B. and R.J.W. contributed equally to this work. Together with J.R.K., they conceived and established the study. M.A.B., R.J.W., P.B., T.W.C., E.E.O. and J.R.K. performed field and laboratory work. M.A.B., R.J.W. and S.A.W. analysed data. W.R.W. modelled the decomposition data. M.A.B. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to data interpretation and paper writing.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Mark A. Bradford.

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