Winter Insulation By Snow Accumulation in a Subarctic Treeline Ecosystem Increases Summer Carbon Cycling Rates

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Thomas Parker, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9, United Kingdom, Jens-Arne Subke, University of Stirling, Stirling, United Kingdom and Philip A Wookey, Heriot-Watt University, Biological Sciences, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
The effect of snow accumulation on soil carbon and nutrient cycling is attracting substantial attention from researchers. We know that deeper snow accumulation caused by high stature vegetation increases winter microbial activity and therefore carbon and nitrogen flux rates. However, until now the effect of snow accumulation, by buffering winter soil temperature, on subsequent summer soil processes, has scarcely been considered.

We carried out an experiment at an alpine treeline in subarctic Sweden in which soil monoliths, contained within PVC collars, were transplanted between forest (deep winter snow) and tundra heath (shallow winter snow). We measured soil CO2efflux over two growing seasons and quantified soil microbial biomass after the second winter. We showed that respiration rates of transplanted forest soil were significantly reduced compared with control collars (remaining in the forest) as a consequence of colder, but more variable, winter temperatures.

We hypothesised that microbial biomass would be reduced in transplanted forests soils but found there was no difference compared to control. We therefore further hypothesised that the similarly sized microbial pool in the control is assembled differently to the transplant. We believe that the warmer winters in forests foster more active consortia of decomposer microbes as a result of different abiotic selection pressures.

Using an ecosystem scale experimental approach, we have identified a mechanism that influences summer carbon cycling rates based solely on the amount of snow that accumulates the previous winter. We conclude that modification of snow depth as a consequence of changes in vegetation structure is an important mechanism influencing soil C stocks in ecosystems where snow persists for a major fraction of the year.