Transplantation of organic surface horizons of boreal soils into warmer regions alters microbiology but not the temperature sensitivity of decomposition
Changes in soil carbon, the largest terrestrial carbon pool, are critical for the global carbon cycle, atmospheric CO2 levels and climate. Climate warming is predicted to be most pronounced in the northern regions and therefore the large soil carbon pool residing in boreal forests will be subject to larger global warming impact than soil carbon pools in the temperate or the tropical forest. A major uncertainty in current estimates of the terrestrial carbon balance is related to decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM). We hypothesized that when soils are exposed to warmer climate the structure of the ground vegetation will change much more rapidly than the dominant tree species. This change will alter the quality and amount of litter input to the soil and induce changes in microbial communities, thus possibly altering the temperature sensitivity of SOM decomposition. We transferred organic surface soil sections from the northern borders of the boreal forest zone to corresponding forest sites in the southern borders of the boreal forest zone and studied the effects of warmer climate after an adaptation period of 2 years. The results showed that initially ground vegetation and soil microbial community structure and community functions were different in northern and southern forest sites and that 2 years of exposure to warmer climate was long enough to cause changes in these ecological indicators. The rate of SOM decomposition was approximately equally sensitive to temperature irrespective of changes in vegetation or microbial communities in the studied forest sites. However, as temperature sensitivity of the decomposition increases with decreasing temperature regime, the proportional increase in the decomposition rate in northern latitudes could lead to significant carbon losses from the soils.