Field-Scale Partitioning of Ecosystem Respiration Components Suggests Carbon Stabilization in a Bioenergy Grass Ecosystem

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Christopher K Black1, Jesse Nathan Miller1, Michael D Masters2, Carl Bernacchi3 and Evan H DeLucia4, (1)University of Illinois Plant Biology, Urbana, IL, United States, (2)University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Energy Biosciences Institute, Urbana, IL, United States, (3)Global Change and Photosynthesis Research Unit, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, Urbana, IL, United States, (4)Energy Biosciences Institute, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL, United States
Annually-harvested agroecosystems have the potential to be net carbon sinks only if their root systems allocate sufficient carbon belowground and if this carbon is then retained as stable soil organic matter. Soil respiration measurements are the most common approach to evaluate the stability of soil carbon at experimental time scales, but valid inferences require the partitioning of soil respiration into root-derived (current-year C) and heterotrophic (older C) components. This partitioning is challenging at the field scale because roots and soil are intricately mixed and physical separation in impossible without disturbing the fluxes to be measured.

To partition soil flux and estimate the C sink potential of bioenergy crops, we used the carbon isotope difference between C3 and C4 plant species to quantify respiration from roots of three C4 grasses (maize, Miscanthus, and switchgrass) grown in a site with a mixed cropping history where respiration from the breakdown of old soil carbon has a mixed C3-C4 signature. We used a Keeling plot approach to partition fluxes both at the soil surface using soil chambers and from the whole field using continuous flow sampling of air within and above the canopy. Although soil respiration rates from perennial grasses were higher than those from maize, the isotopic signature of respired carbon indicated that the fraction of soil CO2 flux attributable to current-year vegetation was 1.5 (switchgrass) to 2 (Miscanthus) times greater in perennials than that from maize, indicating that soil CO2 flux came mostly from roots and turnover of soil organic matter was reduced in the perennial crops.

This reduction in soil heterotrophic respiration, combined with the much greater quantities of C allocated belowground by perennial grasses compared to maize, suggests that perennial grasses grown as bioenergy crops may be able to provide an additional climate benefit by acting as carbon sinks in addition to reducing fossil fuel consumption.