A novel experimental and modelling study of C and N dynamics between litter, soil, and the atmosphere as affected by soil fauna and litter quality

PI’s: M. Francesca Cotrufo, Diana H. Wall, and William Parton

Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, CSU

Project summary: The decay of dead plant material (litter) is a key process in terrestrial ecosystems, because as nutrients essential for soil fertility, are released into the soil, carbon is released back to the atmosphere in the form of CO2, or stored belowground in stable organic matter forms. Annually, the CO2 released to the atmosphere by decomposition processes is an order of magnitude higher than the CO2 released by anthropogenic activities.  Climate, litter quality and soil animals are key factors for controlling how fast plant decay occurs.  Our current limited knowledge of litter decomposition process is hampering model predictions of future changes in atmospheric green house gases. This proposed research will be a break-through in decomposition study. It includes a novel litter decay experiment in the field using cutting-edge and traditional methods to unravel questions about the rate and fate of carbon and nitrogen from litter to soil and atmosphere. A well designed experimental plan will allow us to unequivocally determine the effect of litter quality and soil animals on the process. The mechanistic understanding of carbon and nitrogen fluxes during litter decomposition will improve ecosystem models and, ultimately, our ability to predict future climate change.

The project will be conducted at the Konza tall grass prairie, an LTER site, and thus will contribute to a long term database on climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. The PI will teach a graduate class on potential uses of the tracers in ecology, and the PIs  will promote additional field and lab opportunities for training for post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students. The PIs will start a discussion group and lecture series on Soil Sustainability and Climate Change to integrate disciplines as part of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability. We also will contribute to the established NSF  K-12 activities ongoing at the NREL.

This project is funded by NSF DEB-1112680.

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