Articles | Volume 14, issue 24
Research article
14 Dec 2017
Research article |  | 14 Dec 2017

The effects of burning and grazing on soil carbon dynamics in managed Peruvian tropical montane grasslands

Viktoria Oliver, Imma Oliveras, Jose Kala, Rebecca Lever, and Yit Arn Teh

Abstract. Montane tropical soils are a large carbon (C) reservoir, acting as both a source and a sink of CO2. Enhanced CO2 emissions originate, in large part, from the decomposition and losses of soil organic matter (SOM) following anthropogenic disturbances. Therefore, quantitative knowledge of the stabilization and decomposition of SOM is necessary in order to understand, assess and predict the impact of land management in the tropics. In particular, labile SOM is an early and sensitive indicator of how SOM responds to changes in land use and management practices, which could have major implications for long-term carbon storage and rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The aim of this study was to investigate the impacts of grazing and fire history on soil C dynamics in the Peruvian montane grasslands, an understudied ecosystem, which covers approximately a quarter of the land area in Peru. A density fractionation method was used to quantify the labile and stable organic matter pools, along with soil CO2 flux and decomposition measurements. Grazing and burning together significantly increased soil CO2 fluxes and decomposition rates and reduced temperature as a driver. Although there was no significant effect of land use on total soil C stocks, the combination of burning and grazing decreased the proportion of C in the free light fraction (LF), especially at the lower depths (10–20 and 20–30 cm). In the control soils, 20 % of the material recovered was in the free LF, which contained 30 % of the soil C content. In comparison, the burnt–grazed soil had the smallest recovery of the free LF (10 %) and a significantly lower C content (14 %). The burnt soils had a much higher proportion of C in the occluded LF (12 %) compared to the not-burnt soils (7 %) and there was no significant difference among the treatments in the heavy fraction (F) ( ∼  70 %). The synergistic effect of burning and grazing caused changes to the soil C dynamics. CO2 fluxes were increased and the dominant temperature driver was obscured by some other process, such as changes in plant C and N allocation. In addition, the free LF was reduced when these two anthropogenic activities took place on the same site – most likely a result of reduced detritus being incorporated into the soil. A positive finding from this study is that the total soil C stocks were not significantly affected and the long-term (+10 years) C storage in the occluded LF and heavy F were not negatively impacted. Possibly this is because of low-intensity fire, fire-resilient grasses and because the grazing pressure is below the threshold necessary to cause severe degradation.

Short summary
Fire occurrence in the Peruvian montane grasslands has increased due to climate change and agricultural expansion. This study aimed to investigate how anthropogenic activities affect soil carbon stocks in this ecosystem. Burn history (burnt 10 years ago) and grazing appeared to cause no significant change in total soil carbon, but there were significant losses to the labile carbon, suggesting a change in the soil carbon dynamics – findings that are relevant for future environmental policymakers.
Final-revised paper