Linking Soil CO2 Efflux to Individual Trees: Size-Dependent Variation and the Importance of the Birch Effect

Soil CO2 efflux (FCO2) is a major component of the terrestrial carbon (C) cycle but challenges in explaining local variability hamper efforts to link broad-scale fluxes to their biotic drivers. Trees are the dominant C source for forest soils, so linking tree properties to FCO2 could open new avenues to study plant-soil feedbacks and facilitate scaling; furthermore, FCO2 responds dynamically to meteorological conditions, complicating predictions of total FCO2 and forest C balance. We tested for proximity effects of individual Acer saccharum Marsh. trees on FCO2, comparing FCO2 within 1 m of mature stems to background fluxes before and after an intense rainfall event. Wetting significantly increased background FCO2 (6.4 ± 0.3 vs. 8.6 ± 0.6 s.e. μmol CO2 m−2s−1), with a much larger enhancement near tree stems (6.3 ± 0.3 vs. 10.8 ± 0.4 μmol CO2 m−2s−1). FCO2 varied significantly among individual trees and post-rain values increased with tree diameter (with a slope of 0.058 μmol CO2 m−2s−1cm−1). Post-wetting amplification of FCO2 (the ‘Birch effect’) in root zones often results from the improved mobility of labile carbohydrates and further metabolization of recalcitrant organic matter, which may both occur at higher densities near larger trees. Our results indicate that plant-soil feedbacks change through tree ontogeny and provide evidence for a novel link between whole-system carbon fluxes and forest structure.  

Jonathan S. Schurman & Sean C. Thomas
Soil Systems