Carbon Accumulation and Nitrogen Pool Recovery during Transitions from Savanna to Forest in Central Brazil

Monday, 15 December 2014: 2:10 PM
Adam Pellegrini, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, United States, William A Hoffmann, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Plant Biology, Raleigh, NC, United States and Augusto C Franco, Universidade de Brasilia, Botany, Brasilia, Brazil
The expansion of tropical forest into savanna may potentially be a large carbon sink, but little is known about the patterns of carbon sequestration during transitional forest formation. Moreover, it is unclear how nutrient limitation, due to extended exposure to firedriven nutrient losses, may constrain carbon accumulation. Here, we sampled plots that spanned a woody biomass gradient from savanna to transitional forest in response to differential fire protection in central Brazil. These plots were used to investigate how the process of transitional forest formation affects the size and distribution of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) pools. This was paired with a detailed analysis of the nitrogen cycle to explore possible connections between carbon accumulation and nitrogen limitation. An analysis of carbon pools in the vegetation, upper soil, and litter shows that the transition from savanna to transitional forest can result in a fourfold increase in total carbon (from 43 to 179 Mg C/ha) with a doubling of carbon stocks in the litter and soil layers. Total nitrogen in the litter and soil layers increased with forest development in both the bulk (+68%) and plant-available (+150%) pools, with the most pronounced changes occurring in the upper layers. However, the analyses of nitrate concentrations, nitrate : ammonium ratios, plant stoichiometry of carbon and nitrogen, and soil and foliar nitrogen isotope ratios suggest that a conservative nitrogen cycle persists throughout forest development, indicating that nitrogen remains in low supply relative to demand. Furthermore, the lack of variation in underlying soil type (>20 cm depth) suggests that the biogeochemical trends across the gradient are driven by vegetation. Our results provide evidence for high carbon sequestration potential with forest encroachment on savanna, but nitrogen limitation may play a large and persistent role in governing carbon sequestration in savannas or other equally fire-disturbed tropical landscapes. In turn, the link between forest development and nitrogen pool recovery creates a framework for evaluating potential positive feedbacks on savanna–forest boundaries.