Article | Published:

Organic matter losses in German Alps forest soils since the 1970s most likely caused by warming

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 543548 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

Climate warming is expected to induce soil organic carbon losses in mountain soils that result, in turn, in reduced soil fertility, reduced water storage capacity and positive feedback on climate change. Here we combine two independent sets of measurements of soil organic carbon from forest soils in the German Alps—repeated measurements from 1976 to 2010 and from 1987 to 2011—to show that warming has caused a 14% decline in topsoil organic carbon stocks. The decreases in soil carbon occurred over a period of significant increases in six-month summer temperatures, with the most substantial decreases occurring at sites with large changes in mean annual temperature. Organic carbon stock decreases were largest—on average 32%—in forest soils with initial topsoil organic carbon stocks greater than 8 kg C m−2, which can be found predominantly on calcareous bedrock. However, organic carbon stocks of forest soils with lower initial carbon stocks, as well as soils under pasture or at elevations above 1,150 m, have not changed significantly. We conclude that warming is the most likely reason for the observed losses of soil organic carbon, but that site, land use and elevation may ameliorate the effects of climate change.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    , , & Soil carbon pools and world life zones. Nature 298, 156–159 (1982).

  2. 2.

    Resistance and elasticity: promising concepts for the management of protection forests in the European Alps. Forest Ecol. Manage. 45, 107–119 (2001).

  3. 3.

    et al. Ecosystem service supply and vulnerability to global change in Europe. Science 310, 1333–1337 (2005).

  4. 4.

    , & Soil warming and organic carbon content. Nature 408, 789–790 (2000).

  5. 5.

    , , & Long-term sensitivity of soil carbon turnover to warming. Nature 433, 298–301 (2005).

  6. 6.

    , & Mountain soils under a changing climate and land-use. Biogeochemistry 97, 1–5 (2010).

  7. 7.

    , , , & Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model. Nature 408, 184–187 (2000).

  8. 8.

    , , & Recent carbon and nitrogen accumulation and acidification in soils of two Scots pine ecosystems in Southern Germany. Plant Soil 289, 153–170 (2006).

  9. 9.

    , & Organic carbon stocks and sequestration rates of forest soils in Germany. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 2644–2662 (2014).

  10. 10.

    , & Soil organic carbon and total nitrogen gains in an old growth deciduous forest in Germany. PLoS ONE 9, e89364 (2014).

  11. 11.

    & Main determinants of forest soil respiration along an elevation/temperature gradient in the Italian Alps. Glob. Change Biol. 11, 1024–1041 (2005).

  12. 12.

    , , & Soil organic-matter stocks and characteristics along an Alpine elevation gradient. J. Plant Nutr. Soil Sci. 173, 30–38 (2010).

  13. 13.

    , , & Kohlenstoff in Schweizer Waldböden–bei Klimaerwärmung eine potenzielle CO2-Quelle. Schweiz. Z. Forstwes. 12, 530–535 (2010).

  14. 14.

    & Organic carbon stocks in forest soils of the German Alps. Geoderma 221–222, 28–39 (2014).

  15. 15.

    , & Carbon losses due to soil warming: do autotrophic and heterotrophic soil respiration respond equally? Glob. Change Biol. 15, 901–913 (2009).

  16. 16.

    et al. Short-term responses of ecosystem carbon fluxes to experimental warming at the Swiss alpine treeline. Biogeochemistry 97, 7–19 (2010).

  17. 17.

    The response of terrestrial ecosystems to global climate change: towards an integrated approach. Sci. Total Environ. 404, 222–235 (2008).

  18. 18.

    Bayerische Waldboden-Dauerbeobachtungsflächen–Bodenuntersuchungen. Forstl. Forsch. Münch. 187, 1–223 (2002).

  19. 19.

    , & Humus und Humusschwund im Gebirge. Nationalpark Berchtesgaden Forschungsber. 2, 1–110 (1981).

  20. 20.

    , , , & Assessing the spatial variability of soil organic carbon stocks in an alpine setting (Grindelwald, Swiss Alps). Geoderma 232–234, 270–283 (2014).

  21. 21.

    Langzeitverhalten der Lufttemperatur in Baden–Württemberg und Bayern (ed. Kliwa, A. K.) Vol. 5, 1–74 (KLIWA-Berichte, 2004).

  22. 22.

    et al. HISTALP—historical instrumental climatological surface time series of the greater Alpine region 1760–2003. Int. J. Climatol. 27, 17–46 (2007).

  23. 23.

    , , , & Observed soil temperature trends associated with climate change in Canada. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D02106 (2011).

  24. 24.

    & Carbon dynamics in successional and afforested spruce stands in Thuringia and the Alps. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 325–342 (2006).

  25. 25.

    & Soil change after 50 years of converting Norway spruce dominated age class forests into single tree selection forests. Forest Ecol. Manage. 338, 176–182 (2015).

  26. 26.

    , , & Impacts of elevated N inputs on north temperate forest soil C storage, C/N, and net N-mineralization. Geoderma 153, 231–240 (2009).

  27. 27.

    et al. Reduction of forest soil respiration in response to nitrogen deposition. Nature Geosci. 3, 315–322 (2010).

  28. 28.

    , , & Forest growth response to changing climate between 1961 and 1990 in Austria. Forest Ecol. Manage. 122, 209–219 (1999).

  29. 29.

    et al. Vulnerability of Norway spruce to climate change in mountain forests of the European Alps. Clim. Res. 60, 119–132 (2014).

  30. 30.

    & Temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition and feedbacks to climate change. Nature 446, 165–173 (2006).

  31. 31.

    et al. Changes in soil organic carbon storage predicted by Earth system models during the 21st century. Biogeosciences 11, 2341–2356 (2014).

  32. 32.

    , , , & Effects of forest expansion on mountain grassland: changes within soil organic carbon fractions. Plant Soil 385, 373–387 (2014).

  33. 33.

    , , & Land-use change in subalpine grassland soils: effect on particulate organic carbon fractions and aggregation. J. Plant Nutr. Soil Sci. 175, 401–409 (2012).

  34. 34.

    et al. Stabilization of organic matter in temperate soils: mechanisms and their relevance under different soil conditions—a review. Eur. J. Soil Sci. 57, 426–445 (2006).

  35. 35.

    et al. Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property. Nature 478, 49–56 (2011).

  36. 36.

    et al. Climate extremes and the carbon cycle. Nature 500, 287–295 (2013).

  37. 37.

    Modelling forest growth and carbon storage in response to increasing CO2 and temperature. Tellus B 51, 871–888 (1999).

  38. 38.

    et al. How strongly can forest management influence soil carbon sequestration? Geoderma 137, 253–268 (2007).

  39. 39.

    Changes in forest floor organic matter and nutrient content following clear cutting in northern hardwoods. Ecology 62, 41–48 (1981).

  40. 40.

    , & Soil carbon dynamics after forest harvest: an ecosystem paradigm reconsidered. Ecosystems 6, 197–212 (2003).

  41. 41.

    & Die zweite Bundeswaldinventur 2002: Ergebnisse für Bayern. LWF Wiss. 49, 1–102 (2005).

  42. 42.

    , & Soil organic matter changes in a spruce ecosystem 25 years after disturbance. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 70, 2130–2145 (2006).

  43. 43.

    et al. Current status, uncertainty and future needs in soil organic carbon monitoring. Sci. Total Environ. 468–469, 376–383 (2014).

  44. 44.

    et al. Bias in the attribution of forest carbon sinks. Nature Clim. Change 3, 854–856 (2013).

  45. 45.

    , , & 20th century carbon budget of forest soils in the Alps. Ecosystems 2, 320–337 (1999).

  46. 46.

    et al. Effects of atmospheric and climate change at the timberline of the Central European Alps. Ann. For. Sci. 66, 402 (2009).

  47. 47.

    Ber. Dtsch. Wetterd. Vol. 193 (Offenbach, 1995).

  48. 48.

    & Ber. Dtsch. Wetterd. Vol. 235 (Offenbach, 2010).

  49. 49.

    , & Ber. Dtsch. Wetterd. Vol. 223 (Offenbach, 2003).

  50. 50.

    , & MetaWin—Statistical Software Analysis for Meta-analysis with Resampling Tests (Sinauer Associates Publishing, 1997).

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank C. Pfab and T. Bartelt for assistance in sample preparation and analysis. R. Bochter, W. Neuerburg and H. Röhle kindly showed us the exact locations of the profiles where the first SOC inventories of the Set 2 study sites had been conducted in 1976. We appreciate the help of E. Hobley with language editing. Financial support for this study was provided by the Bavarian Ministry of Nutrition, Agriculture and Forestry (Grant B 69).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Lehrstuhl für Bodenkunde, Wissenschaftszentrum Weihenstephan, Technische Universität München, Emil-Ramann-Strasse 2, D-85354 Freising, Germany

    • Jörg Prietzel
    •  & Dominik Christophel
  2. Bavarian State Institute of Forestry, Hans-Carl-von-Carlowitz-Platz 1, D-85354 Freising, Germany

    • Lothar Zimmermann
    •  & Alfred Schubert

Authors

  1. Search for Jörg Prietzel in:

  2. Search for Lothar Zimmermann in:

  3. Search for Alfred Schubert in:

  4. Search for Dominik Christophel in:

Contributions

J.P. wrote the paper, designed the study, calculated mean SOC stock, temperature and precipitation changes, and performed the statistical data evaluation. L.Z. provided regionalized climate data and contributed to the main text and Methods (climate change issues). A.S. conducted the first SOC inventory of Set 1 and provided the respective data. D.C. conducted the second SOC inventories of Set 1 and 2, scrutinized and evaluated all soil data, and calculated SOC stock changes for the different study sites.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jörg Prietzel.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2732

Further reading