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Seasonal and inter-annual variability in litter decomposition and nitrogen availability in a mid-Appalachian watershed

Atkins, J. W., H. E. Epstein and D. L. Welsch. 2017.


The role that microclimates play on soil decomposition is poorly understood. Though litter decomposition is controlled by climate and substrate quality at coarse spatial scales, at the watershed scale, microclimates mediated by forest structure and landscape position can influence decomposition rates and in turn affect nitrogen cycling. To evaluate the effects of landscape position and vegetation heterogeneity on decomposition, we employed a two-year litterbag study (2011- 2013) using yellow birch leaf litter across the Weimer Run watershed, a cool, humid watershed located near Davis, West Virginia. From our results, we created a spatially explicit empirical model that we tested against both a single-pool and three-pool decomposition model, each based on climate and derived from the Long-Term Intersite Decomposition Experiment Team. Initial litter decomposition varied by elevation, with greater rates of decomposition at locations lower in the watershed. Decomposition rates differed by elevation, except during the first winter of the study. No differences in decomposition rates were seen among elevation levels when snowfall was below average for the first winter (2011- 2012). During the second winter (2012- 2013), elevation levels showed separation in decomposition rates, with higher elevations exhibiting lower decomposition rate. This suggests important controls on decomposition exerted by the presence or absence of snow, inter-annual climate variability, and the interaction of both with topography. Our empirical model showed greater rates of decomposition during early stages of decomposition (<12 months), but converged with the three-pool decomposition model after 20 months. Plant available nitrogen differed by vegetation cover, largely driven by greater availability of nitrate (NO3-) beneath areas of canopy closure in the forest. Controls on decomposition and nitrogen cycling within the Weimer Run watershed vary spatially by elevation and vegetation cover and are subject to complex interactions and differ from standard models of decomposition. The effect of the inter-annual variance of snow depth on litter decomposition is of note and an important consideration moving forward. Climate-based models of decomposition greatly underestimate initial rates of decomposition, potentially leading to under-accounting and compounded uncertainty.

Key Words

complex topography inter-annual climate variability litter decomposition nitrogen cycling snow