Kirschbaum, M.U.F. (1995). The temperature dependence of soil organic matter decomposition and the effect of global warming on soil organic carbon storage. Soil Biology & Biochemistry 27: 753-760.

One of the key questions in climate change research relates to the future dynamics of the large amount of C that is currently stored in soil organic matter. Will the amount of C in this pool increase or decrease with global warming? The future trend in amounts of soil organic C will depend on the relative temperature sensitivities of net primary productivity and soil organic matter decomposition rate. Equations for the temperature dependence of net primary productivity have been widely used, but the temperature dependence of decomposition rate is less clear.

The literature was surveyed to obtain the temperature dependencies of soil respiration and N dynamics reported in different studies. Only laboratory-based measurements were used to avoid confounding effects with differences in litter input rates, litter quality, soil moisture or other environmental factors. A considerable range of values has been reported, with the greatest relative sensitivity of decomposition processes to temperature having been observed at low temperatures.

A relationship fitted to the literature data indicated that the rate of decomposition increases with temperature at 0°C with a Q10 of almost 8. The temperature sensitivity of organic matter decomposition decreases with increasing temperature, indicated by the Q10 decreasing with temperature to be about 4.5 at 10°C and 2.5 at 20°C. At low temperatures, the temperature sensitivity of decomposition was consequently much greater than the temperature sensitivity of net primary productivity, whereas the temperature sensitivities became more similar at higher temperatures. The much higher temperature sensitivity of decomposition than for net primary productivity has important implications for the store of soil organic C in the soil.

The data suggest that a 1°C increase in temperature could ultimately lead to a loss of over 10% of soil organic C in regions of the world with an annual mean temperature of 5°C, whereas the same temperature increase would lead to a loss of only 3% of soil organic C for a soil at 30°C. These differences are even greater in absolute amounts as cooler soils contain greater amounts of soil organic C. This analysis supports the conclusion of previous studies which indicated that soil organic C contents may decrease greatly with global warming and thereby provide a positive feed-back in the global C cycle.

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