Warming accelerates belowground litter turnover in salt marshes – insights from a Tea Bag Index study

Hao Tang, Stefanie Nolte, Kai Jensen, Roy R. Rich, Julian Mittmann-Goetsch, Peter Mueller

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Salt marshes play an important role in the global carbon cycle due to the large amount of organic carbon stored in their soils. Soil organic carbon formation in these coastal wetland ecosystems is strongly controlled by the plant primary production and initial decomposition rates of plant belowground biomass and litter. This study used a field warming experiment to investigate the response of belowground litter breakdown to rising temperature (+1.5 and +3.0◦C) across whole-soil profiles (0–60 cm soil depth) and the entire intertidal flooding gradient ranging from the pioneer zone via the low marsh to high marsh. We used standardized plant materials, following the Tea Bag Index approach, to assess the initial decomposition rate (k) and the stabilization factor (S) of labile organic matter inputs to the soil system. While k describes the initial pace at which labile (= hydrolyzable) organic matter decomposes, S describes the part of the labile fraction that does not decompose during deployment in the soil system and stabilizes due to biochemical transformation. We show that warming strongly increased k consistently throughout the entire soil profile and across the entire flooding gradient, suggesting that warming effects on the initial decomposition rate of labile plant materials are independent of the soil aeration (i.e., redox) status. By contrast, negative effects on litter stabilization were less consistent. Specifically, warming effects on S were restricted to the aerated topsoil in the frequently flooded pioneer zone, while the soil depth to which stabilization responded increased across the marsh elevation gradient via the low to high marsh. These findings suggest that reducing soil conditions can suppress the response of belowground litter stabilization to rising temperature. In conclusion, our study demonstrates marked differences in the response of initial decomposition rate vs. stabilization of labile plant litter to rising temperature in salt marshes. We argue that these differences are strongly mediated by the soil redox status along flooding and soil-depth gradients.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1925–1935
Number of pages11
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2023

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