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Experimental Warming of Typically Acidic and Nutrient-Poor Boreal Soils Does Not Affect Leaf-Litter Decomposition of Temperate Deciduous Tree Species

Belanger, N. and C. C. Richard. 2023.


Ongoing rapid climatic changes are expected to modify the structure, composition, and functioning of forest ecosystems. Studying the influence of such changes on biogeochemical processes is thus crucial for a fuller understanding of forest response to climate change. In a temperate forest of Quebec, Canada, we emulated climate change by warming the acidic, nutrient-poor, and dry soils of two mixedwoods by 3 to 4 °C using heating cables. Leaf-litter mass loss of the local red maple, sugar maple, large-tooth aspen, and American beech were monitored to assess the ability of these tree species to condition boreal soils in the context of their northward migration under climate change. We hypothesized that decomposition rates of all leaf-litter types would be decreased equally by warming due to a drying effect of the soil and its surface, which is detrimental to microbial biomass and activity. Our results suggest differences in decomposition rates between tree species as follows: sugar maple > red maple ≥ American beech = large-tooth aspen. There was no indication of a slower turnover in these marginal soils compared to other studies conducted on typical hardwood soils. Moreover, no difference in litter mass loss was detected between treatments, likely due to a drying effect of the soil warming treatment. Results imply that climate change has a marginal influence on lea-litter dynamics of temperate tree species on soils that are typical of the boreal forest. However, some variables that could play an important role on litter decomposition in the context of climate change were not measured (e.g., plant phenology, understory composition and density, microbes) and thus, uncertainties remain. The soil drying effect by warming also needs to be further documented and modeled. The study year was characterized by significant periods of water stress but was not considered an exceptional year in that regard. It would be relevant to test for leaf-litter dynamics during dry and wet summers and verify again our initial hypothesis of decreased leaf-litter decomposition rates due to soil warming/drying.

Key Words

climate change; temperate forests; acidic soils; warming; drying; leaf litter dynamics