Plants Regulate Soil Organic Matter Decomposition in Response to Sea Level Rise

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 8:00 AM
Patrick Megonigal1, Peter Mueller2 and Kai Jensen2, (1)Smithsonian Env Research Ctr, Edgewater, MD, United States, (2)University of Hamburg, Biocenter Klein Flottbek, Applied Plant Ecology, Hamburg, Germany
Tidal wetlands have a large capacity for producing and storing organic matter, making their role in the global carbon budget disproportionate to their land area. Most of the organic matter stored in these systems is in soils where it contributes 2-5 times more to surface accretion than an equal mass of minerals. Soil organic matter (SOM) sequestration is the primary process by which tidal wetlands become perched high in the tidal frame, decreasing their vulnerability to accelerated sea level rise. Plant growth responses to sea level rise are well understood and represented in century-scale forecast models of soil surface elevation change. We understand far less about the response of soil organic matter decomposition to rapid sea level rise. Here we quantified the effects of sea level on SOM decomposition rates by exposing planted and unplanted tidal marsh monoliths to experimentally manipulated flood duration. The study was performed in a field-based mesocosm facility at the Smithsonian’s Global Change Research Wetland. SOM decomposition rate was quantified as CO2 efflux, with plant- and SOM-derived CO2 separated with a two end-member δ13C-CO2 model. Despite the dogma that decomposition rates are inversely related to flooding, SOM mineralization was not sensitive to flood duration over a 35 cm range in soil surface elevation. However, decomposition rates were strongly and positively related to aboveground biomass (R2≥0.59, p≤0.01). We conclude that soil carbon loss through decomposition is driven by plant responses to sea level in this intensively studied tidal marsh. If this result applies more generally to tidal wetlands, it has important implications for modeling soil organic matter and surface elevation change in response to accelerated sea level rise.