Effects of Conversion from Boreal Forest to Arctic Steppe on Soil Communities and Ecosystem Carbon Pools
Wednesday, 17 December 2014
The end of the Pleistocene marked the extinction of a great variety of arctic megafauna, which, in part, led to the conversion of arctic grasslands to modern Siberian larch forest. This shift may have increased the vulnerability of permafrost to thawing because of changes driven by the vegetation shift; the higher albedo of grassland and low insulation of snow trampled by animals may have decreased soil temperatures and reduced ground thaw in the grassland ecosystem, resulting in protection of organic carbon in thawed soil and permafrost. To test these hypothesized impacts of arctic megafauna, we examined an experimental reintroduction of large mammals in northeast Siberia, initiated in 1988. Pleistocene Park now contains 23 horses, three musk ox, one bison, and several moose in addition to the native fauna. The park is 16 square km with a smaller enclosure (< 1 km) where animals spend most of their time and our study was focused. We measured carbon-pools in forested sites (where scat surveys showed low animal use), and grassy sites (which showed higher use), within the park boundaries. We also measured thaw depth and documented the soil invertebrate communities in each ecosystem. There was a substantial difference in number of invertebrates per kg of organic soil between the forest (600 ± 250) and grassland (300 ± 250), though these differences were not statistically significant they suggest faster nutrient turnover in the forest or a greater proportion of decomposition by invertebrates than other decomposers. While thaw depth was deeper in the grassland (60 ± 4 cm) than in the forest (40 ± 6 cm), we did not detect differences in organic layer depth or percent organic matter between grassland and forest. However, soil in the grassland had higher bulk density, and higher carbon stocks in the organic and mineral soil layers. Although deeper thaw depth in the grassland suggests that more carbon is available to microbial decomposers, ongoing temperature monitoring will help determine whether or not differences detected in summer continue throughout the year. This study provides a preliminary understanding of the role megafauna play in carbon emissions from the arctic, and suggests that animals play a critical role in regulating permafrost thaw and the fate of carbon stored in Arctic soils.