Competing Processes Drive the Resistance of Soil Carbon to Alterations in Organic Inputs

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
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Pierson, D.; Peter-Contesse, H.; Bowden, R. D.; Nadelhoffer, K.; Kayhani, K.; Evans, L.; Lajtha, K. . 2021. Competing Processes Drive the Resistance of Soil Carbon to Alterations in Organic Inputs. Frontiers in Environmental Science. 9: 527803. doi:


Protecting existing soil carbon (C) and harnessing the C sequestration potential of soils require an improved understanding of the processes through which soil organic matter accumulates in natural systems. Currently, competing hypotheses exist regarding the dominant mechanisms for soil C stabilization. Many long-standing hypotheses revolve around an assumed positive relationship between the quantity of organic inputs and soil C accumulation, while more recent hypotheses have shifted attention toward the complex controls of microbial processing and organo-mineral complexation. Here, we present the observed ?ndings of soil response to 20 years of detrital manipulations in the wet, temperate forest of the H.J. Andrews Experimental Station. Annual additions of low-quality (high C:N content) wood litter to the soil surface led to a greater positive effect on observed mean soil C concentration relative to additions of higher-quality (low C:N content) needle litter over the 20-year study period. However, high variability in measurements of soil C led to a statistically non-signi?cant difference in C concentration between the two treatments and the control soil. The observed soil C responses to these two addition treatments demonstrates the long timescale and potential magnitude of soil C responses to management or disturbance led changes in forest litter input composition. Detrital input reduction treatments, including cutting off live root activity and the aboveground removal of surface litter, led to relatively small, non-signi?cant effects on soil C concentrations over the 20-year study period. Far greater negative effects on mean soil C concentrations were observed for the combined removal of both aboveground litter and belowground root activity, which led to an observed, yet also non-signi?cant, 20% decline in soil C stocks. The substantial proportion of remaining soil C following these dramatic, long-term reductions in above- and belowground detrital inputs suggests that losses of C in these forest soils are not readily achieved over a few decades of reductions in detrital input and may require far greater periods of time or further perturbations to the environment. Further, the observed soil C responses to detrital manipulations support recent hypotheses regarding soil C stabilization, which emphasize litter quality and mineral stabilization as relevant controls over forest soil C.