Articles | Volume 14, issue 14
Research article
21 Jul 2017
Research article |  | 21 Jul 2017

Boreal coniferous forest density leads to significant variations in soil physical and geochemical properties

Carole Bastianelli, Adam A. Ali, Julien Beguin, Yves Bergeron, Pierre Grondin, Christelle Hély, and David Paré

Abstract. At the northernmost extent of the managed forest in Quebec, Canada, the boreal forest is currently undergoing an ecological transition between two forest ecosystems. Open lichen woodlands (LW) are spreading southward at the expense of more productive closed-canopy black spruce–moss forests (MF). The objective of this study was to investigate whether soil properties could distinguish MF from LW in the transition zone where both ecosystem types coexist. This study brings out clear evidence that differences in vegetation cover can lead to significant variations in soil physical and geochemical properties.

Here, we showed that soil carbon, exchangeable cations, and iron and aluminium crystallinity vary between boreal closed-canopy forests and open lichen woodlands, likely attributed to variations in soil microclimatic conditions. All the soils studied were typical podzolic soil profiles evolved from glacial till deposits that shared a similar texture of the C layer. However, soil humus and the B layer varied in thickness and chemistry between the two forest ecosystems at the pedon scale. Multivariate analyses of variance were used to evaluate how soil properties could help distinguish the two types at the site scale. MF humus (FH horizons horizons composing the O layer) showed significantly higher concentrations of organic carbon and nitrogen and of the main exchangeable base cations (Ca, Mg) than LW soils. The B horizon of LW sites held higher concentrations of total Al and Fe oxides and particularly greater concentrations of inorganic amorphous Fe oxides than MF mineral soils, while showing a thinner B layer. Overall, our results show that MF store three times more organic carbon in their soils (B+FH horizons, roots apart) than LW. We suggest that variations in soil properties between MF and LW are linked to a cascade of events involving the impacts of natural disturbances such as wildfires on forest regeneration that determines the vegetation structure (stand density) and composition (ground cover type) and their subsequent consequences on soil environmental parameters (moisture, radiation rate, redox conditions, etc.). Our data underline significant differences in soil biogeochemistry under different forest ecosystems and reveal the importance of interactions in the soil–vegetation–climate system for the determination of soil composition.

Short summary
Our analyses showed that soil biogeochemistry could distinguish two forest ecosystems that coexist in Quebec: open lichen woodlands and closed-canopy black spruce–moss forests. Variations in carbon stocks, base cation concentrations and crystallinity of aluminium and iron were related to the different vegetation covers. This research was carried out as a first step to identify geochemical indicators of canopy cover types that could be useful in further palaeoecological studies.
Final-revised paper