Temperature and plant species control over litter decomposition in Alaskan tundra

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I compared effects of increased temperature and litter from different Alaskan tundra plant species on cycling of carbon and nitrogen through litter and soil in microcosms. Warming between 4° and 10°C significantly increased rates of soil and litter respiration, litter decomposition, litter nitrogen release, and soil net nitrogen mineralization. Thus, future warming will directly increase rates of carbon and nitrogen cycling through litter and soil in tundra. In addition, differences among species' litter in rates of decomposition, N release, and effects on soil net nitrogen mineralization were sometimes larger than differences between the two temperature treatments within a species. Thus, changes in plant community structure and composition associated with future warming will have important consequences for how elements cycle through litter and soil in tundra. In general, species within a growth form (graminoids, evergreen shrubs, deciduous shrubs, and mosses) were more similar in their effects on decomposition than were species belonging to different growth forms, with graminoid litter having the fastest rate and litter of deciduous shrubs and mosses having the slowest rates. Differences in rates of litter decomposition were more related to carbon quality than to nitrogen concentration. Increased abundance of deciduous shrubs with future climate warming will promote carbon storage, because of their relatively large allocation to woody stems that decompose slowly. Changes in moss abundance will also have important consequences for future carbon and nitrogen cycling, since moss litter is extremely recalcitrant and has a low potential to immobilize nitrogen.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)503-522
Number of pages20
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 1 1996


  • Alaska
  • Climate change
  • Litter decomposition
  • Litter n dynamics
  • Net n mineralization
  • Soil respiration
  • Tundra


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