Articles | Volume 9, issue 2
Research article
23 Feb 2012
Research article |  | 23 Feb 2012

Free and protected soil organic carbon dynamics respond differently to abandonment of mountain grassland

S. Meyer, J. Leifeld, M. Bahn, and J. Fuhrer

Abstract. Land-use change (LUC) and management are among the major driving forces of soil carbon (C) storage. Abandonment of mountain grassland promotes accumulation of aboveground biomass and litter, but related responses of soil organic matter (SOM) dynamics are uncertain. To determine SOM-C turnover we sampled 0–10 cm of soils in the European Alps along two land-use gradients (hay meadows, grazed pastures and abandoned grasslands) of different management intensity. A first land-use gradient was located at Stubai Valley (MAT: 3 °C, MAP: 1097 mm) in Austria and a second at Matsch Valley (MAT: 6.6 °C, MAP: 527 mm) in Italy. We estimated C input and decomposition rates of water-floatable and free particulate organic matter (wPOM, fPOM <1.6 g cm−3) and aggregate-occluded particulate and mineral-associated organic matter (oPOM <1.6 g cm−3, mOM >1.6 g cm−3) using bomb radiocarbon.

In mountain grasslands average C turnover increased from roots (3 yr) < wPOM (5 yr) < fPOM (80 yr) < oPOM (108 yr) < mOM (192 yr). Among SOM fractions the turnover of fPOM-C varied most in relation to management. Along both land-use gradients C input pathways shifted from root-derived towards litter-derived C. The C input rates of both wPOM-C and fPOM-C were affected by land management at both sites. In contrast, oPOM-C and mOM-C dynamics remained relatively stable in response to grassland abandonment. Carbon accumulation rates of free POM decreased strongly with time since LUC (10, 25 and 36 yr). For wPOM-C, for example, it decreased from 7.4 > 2.2> 0.8 g C m−2 yr−1. At both sites, most C was sequestered in the first years after LUC and free POM reached new steady state within 20–40 yr.

We conclude that w-and fPOM-C vs. oPOM-C dynamics respond differently to grassland management change and thus POM does not represent a homogeneous SOM fraction. Sequestered C is stored in the labile POM and not stabilized in the long-term. Thus, it is unlikely that abandonment, the dominant form of LUC in the European Alps, provides a substantial net soil C sink.

Final-revised paper