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Climate fails to predict wood decomposition at regional scales



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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Figure 1: Competing conceptual models of relationships between decomposition and climate across regional to global gradients.
Figure 2: Relationships between wood decomposition, climate and fungi when local-scale variation is collapsed into a mean value for each of the five locations across the regional gradient.
Figure 3: Decomposition of wood blocks is greater with higher temperatures, fungal colonization and termite biomass across a regional gradient in eastern US temperate forest.


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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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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Correspondence to Mark A. Bradford.

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Bradford, M., Warren II, R., Baldrian, P. et al. Climate fails to predict wood decomposition at regional scales. Nature Clim Change 4, 625–630 (2014).

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