Soil carbon cycle 13C responses in the decade following bark beetle and girdling disturbance
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Recent bark beetle outbreaks in western North America have impacted millions of hectares of conifer forests leading to uncertainty about whether these forests will become new sources of atmospheric CO2. In large part, this depends on whether enhanced respiration from the decomposition of newly dead organic matter will outpace the recovery of ecosystem carbon uptake by the ecosystems. To understand how rapidly conifer forest carbon pools turn over following these disturbances, we examined changes in the isotopic composition of soil respiration (δ13Cresp) following beetle and girdling mortality in two subalpine forests in Colorado, U.S.A. At the beetle-impacted forest δ13Cresp declined by ~1‰ between 3 and 8 years post-disturbance, but recovered in years 9–10. In the girdled forest, deep (<10 cm depth) soil respiration from plots at <1 to 2 years post-girdling was depleted by ~1‰ relative to ungirdled plots, but then gradually increased until there was a significant spike in δ13Cresp at 8–9 years post-girdling. Based on our understanding of isotopic composition in carbon pools and fluxes at these forests, we attribute these changes to removal of recently assimilated C in rhizosphere respiration (1–2 years) followed by the decomposition of litterfall (needles and roots) 8–10 years post-disturbance. Relative to ungirdled plots, there was also a transient enrichment in surface δ13Cresp from plots at <1 to 2 years post-girdling (~0.5‰, not statistically significant) and significant declines in microbial carbon in surface soils in 2–4 year post-girdling plots. Again, based on current understanding, we interpret these to signify the rapid turnover of mycorrhizal and rhizosphere microbial biomass in the 2 years following girdling. A potential confounding factor in this study is that seasonal variation in δ13Cresp was similar in magnitude to changes with time since disturbance and was significantly related to variation in soil temperature and water content.