Long-term patterns of mass loss during the decomposition of leaf and fine root litter: an intersite comparison

TitleLong-term patterns of mass loss during the decomposition of leaf and fine root litter: an intersite comparison
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsHarmon, ME, Silver, WL, Fasth, B, Chen, H, Burke, IC, Parton, WJ, Hart, SC, Currie, WS
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Pagination1320 -1338
Accession NumberKNZ001249

Decomposition is a critical process in global carbon cycling. During decomposition, leaf and fine root litter may undergo a later, relatively slow phase; past long-term experiments indicate this phase occurs, but whether it is a general phenomenon has not been examined. Data from Long-term Intersite Decomposition Experiment Team, representing 27 sites and nine litter types (for a total of 234 cases) was used to test the frequency of this later, slow phase of decomposition. Litter mass remaining after up to 10 years of decomposition was fit to models that included (dual exponential and asymptotic) or excluded (single exponential) a slow phase. The resultant regression equations were evaluated for goodness of fit as well as biological realism. Regression analysis indicated that while the dual exponential and asymptotic models statistically and biologically fit more of the litter type–site combinations than the single exponential model, the latter was biologically reasonable for 27–65% of the cases depending on the test used. This implies that a slow phase is common, but not universal. Moreover, estimates of the decomposition rate of the slowly decomposing component averaged 0.139–0.221 year−1 (depending on method), higher than generally observed for mineral soil organic matter, but one-third of the faster phase of litter decomposition. Thus, this material may be slower than the earlier phases of litter decomposition, but not as slow as mineral soil organic matter. Comparison of the long-term integrated decomposition rate (which included all phases of decomposition) to that for the first year of decomposition indicated the former was on average 75% that of the latter, consistent with the presence of a slow phase of decomposition. These results indicate that the global store of litter estimated using short-term decomposition rates would be underestimated by at least one-third.