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Identifying the Relative Role of Control Factors over Decomposition

Recent research conducted by the University of Stirling, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, discovered that climate is the major factor in determining how rapidly dead plants decompose, allowing researchers to make more precise estimations about carbon emissions and climate change globally.

Image Credit: University of Stirling

Plant litter, which consists of decaying dead plants and leaves, emits 60 petagrams of carbon into the atmosphere each year, which is six times more than all human emissions combined and accounts for approximately 10% of total carbon in the atmosphere.

Even though these emissions are normal and necessary for ecosystem function, any rise in their level could expedite climate change. Understanding the conditions under which dead plants decay more or less fast is essential for anticipating and comprehending CO2 concentrations and changes in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Dr. François-Xavier Joly, a Lecturer in Soil Ecology at the University of Stirling, conducted the research at the University of Montpellier in France.

This research is important as it refines our understanding of one of the most important fluxes of carbon to the atmosphere and suggests that we may have been studying decomposition incorrectly in recent years.

Dr. François-Xavier Joly, Lecturer, Soil Ecology, University of Stirling

The carbon emitted to the atmosphere through decomposition accelerates climate change, so this improved understanding is vital to helping better predict future carbon emissions and climate scenarios in our changing world. Our specific findings might also help modelers to put more realistic parameters into their systems, and provide more accurate future climate predictions as a result,” adds Dr François-Xavier Joly.

The more accurately we can predict how the natural process of dead plant material decomposition is responding to the ongoing climate change crisis, the better we can understand how its response may slow down or accelerate climate change in the years to come.

Dr. François-Xavier Joly, Lecturer, Soil Ecology, University of Stirling

The study resolves a previous debate over whether small-scale environmental conditions or large-scale climate differences are the most relevant force in influencing decomposition rates. It discovered that changes in climate between regions had a considerably bigger impact on the frequency of decomposition, reinforcing the legitimacy and efficacy of employing carbon flux models, which estimate future climate change scenarios based on regions’ climates.

The researchers gathered climatic, canopy, soil, and litter quality data from about 200 different forest plots across Europe, from Spain to Finland. Academics evaluated the rate of decomposition of artificial plant litter, such as sheets of paper and pieces of wood, in plots alongside natural litter from the surrounding environment, such as dead oak tree leaves in an oak tree forest, over a year.

While artificial plant litter, which is usually utilized in this research, revealed a stronger effect of small-scale environmental factors on decomposition, natural plant litter decomposition was mostly regulated by large-scale climatic conditions.

Dr. Francois-Xavier Joly’s investigation was overseen by Stephan Hättenschwiler of the French National Centre for Scientific Research’s Centre of Evolutionary and Functional Ecology and Michael Scherer-Lorenzen of the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Journal Reference

Joly, F.-X., et al. (2023) Resolving the intricate role of climate in litter decomposition. Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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