Initial Stages of Tundra Shrub Litter Decomposition May Be Accelerated by Deeper Winter Snow But Slowed Down by Spring Warming

Research paper by Daan Blok, Bo Elberling, Anders Michelsen

Indexed on: 07 Oct '15Published on: 07 Oct '15Published in: Ecosystems (New York, N.Y.)


The Arctic climate is projected to change during the coming century, with expected higher air temperatures and increased winter snowfall. These climatic changes might alter litter decomposition rates, which in turn could affect carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling rates in tundra ecosystems. However, little is known of seasonal climate change effects on plant litter decomposition rates and N dynamics, hampering predictions of future arctic vegetation composition and the tundra C balance. We tested the effects of snow addition (snow fences), warming (open top chambers), and shrub removal (clipping), using a full-factorial experiment, on mass loss and N dynamics of two shrub tissue types with contrasting quality: deciduous shrub leaf litter (Salix glauca) and evergreen shrub shoots (Cassiope tetragona). We performed a 10.5-month decomposition experiment in a low-arctic shrub tundra heath in West-Greenland. Field incubations started in late fall, with harvests made after 249, 273, and 319 days of field incubation during early spring, summer and fall of the next year, respectively. We observed a positive effect of deeper snow on winter mass loss which is considered a result of observed higher soil winter temperatures and corresponding increased winter microbial litter decomposition in deep-snow plots. In contrast, warming reduced litter mass loss during spring, possibly because the dry spring conditions might have dried out the litter layer and thereby limited microbial litter decomposition. Shrub removal had a small positive effect on litter mass loss for C. tetragona during summer, but not for S. glauca. Nitrogen dynamics in decomposing leaves and shoots were not affected by the treatments but did show differences in temporal patterns between tissue types: there was a net immobilization of N by C. tetragona shoots after the winter incubation, while S. glauca leaf N-pools were unaltered over time. Our results support the widely hypothesized positive linkage between winter snow depth and litter decomposition rates in tundra ecosystems, but our results do not reveal changes in N dynamics during initial decomposition stages. Our study also shows contrasting impacts of spring warming and snow addition on shrub decomposition rates that might have important consequences for plant community composition and vegetation-climate feedbacks in rapidly changing tundra ecosystems.