Kirschbaum, M.U.F., Harms, B., Mathers, N.J., Dalal, R.C. (2008). Soil carbon and nitrogen changes after clearing mulga (Acacia aneura) vegetation in Queensland, Australia. Observations, simulations and scenario analysis. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 40: 392-405.


Abstract. In the work reported here we examine the changes in soil (organic) carbon and nitrogen that are observed after converting a stand of nitrogen-fixing mulga trees (Acacia aneura) to buffel-grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) pasture that contained no nitrogen-fixing legumes. A range of previously reported field measurements was compared against the output of CenW 3.1, a reformulated version of the CENTURY model.

The model successfully reproduced the observed patterns of soil carbon, C:N ratios and nitrogen mineralisation rates under mulga vegetation. This included relatively small changes in carbon concentration down to 1 m, C:N ratios of around 11–13 across all soil depths, substantial nitrogen mineralisation rates to a depth of 90 cm and, after clearing, an on-going decrease in soil organic carbon and nitrogen stocks.

Interpretation of experimental observations was made difficult by the addition of a large amount of ‘dead’ organic matter from killed mulga roots after clearance. This material may be excluded through sieving (to 2 mm) in measurements taken shortly after tree removal, but may be included in later-year sampling as the partly decomposed material might be able to pass through sieves. Past work has usually ignored consideration of dead coarse roots. For the site carbon budget, changes in live biomass and surface litter significantly outweighed the small changes in soil organic carbon, and changes in decaying coarse roots were quantitatively more important than changes in other organic carbon pools.

Modelled nitrogen mineralisation rates were lower under buffel-grass than those under mulga and showed significant year-to-year variations that were in line with varying rainfall. It showed no consistent trend over the first 20 years after clearing because the effect of decreasing nitrogen stocks was balanced by an increase in organic matter quality with the change from lignin-rich mulga litter to buffel-grass litter with lower lignin concentration. Nitrogen mineralisation rates gradually decreased thereafter as nitrogen stocks continued to decrease but litter quality stabilised.

A scenario analysis showed that soil carbon and nitrogen trends could be affected by changing the nitrogen budget through inclusion of legumes or cessation of nutrient removal by grazing animals. Inclusion of legumes was needed to halt the decline in soil nitrogen and to ensure the long-term maintenance, or increase, in nitrogen stocks.


Keywords: CenW; deforestation; mulga; land-use change; model; soil carbon; soil nitrogen.

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