Surficial gains and subsoil losses of soil carbon and nitrogen during secondary forest development.

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Reforestation of formerly cultivated land is widely understood to accumulate above- and belowground detrital organic matter pools, including soil organic matter. However, during 40 years of study of reforestation in the subtropical southeastern USA, repeated observations of above- and belowground carbon documented that significant gains in soil organic matter (SOM) in surface soils (0-7.5 cm) were offset by significant SOM losses in subsoils (35-60 cm). Here, we extended the observation period in this long-term experiment by an additional decade, and used soil fractionation and stable isotopes and radioisotopes to explore changes in soil organic carbon and soil nitrogen that accompanied nearly 50 years of loblolly pine secondary forest development. We observed that accumulations of mineral soil C and N from 0 to 7.5 cm were almost entirely due to accumulations of light-fraction SOM. Meanwhile, losses of soil C and N from mineral soils at 35 to 60 cm were from SOM associated with silt and clay-sized particles. Isotopic signatures showed relatively large accumulations of forest-derived carbon in surface soils, and little to no accumulation of forest-derived carbon in subsoils. We argue that the land use change from old field to secondary forest drove biogeochemical and hydrological changes throughout the soil profile that enhanced microbial activity and SOM decomposition in subsoils. However, when the pine stands aged and began to transition to mixed pines and hardwoods, demands on soil organic matter for nutrients to support aboveground growth eased due to pine mortality, and subsoil organic matter levels stabilized. This study emphasizes the importance of long-term experiments and deep measurements when characterizing soil C and N responses to land use change and the remarkable paucity of such long-term soil data deeper than 30 cm.





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Mobley, Megan L, Kate Lajtha, Marc G Kramer, Allan R Bacon, Paul R Heine and Daniel Deb Richter (2015). Surficial gains and subsoil losses of soil carbon and nitrogen during secondary forest development. Global change biology, 21(2). pp. 986–996. 10.1111/gcb.12715 Retrieved from

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Daniel D. Richter

Professor in the Division of Earth and Climate Science

Richter’s research and teaching links soils with ecosystems and the wider environment, most recently Earth scientists’ Critical Zone.  He focuses on how humanity is transforming Earth’s soils from natural to human-natural systems, specifically how land-uses alter soil processes and properties on time scales of decades, centuries, and millennia.  Richter's book, Understanding Soil Change (Cambridge University Press), co-authored with his former PhD student Daniel Markewitz (Professor at University of Georgia), explores a legacy of soil change across the Southern Piedmont of North America, from the acidic soils of primary hardwood forests that covered the region until 1800, through the marked transformations affected by long-cultivated cotton, to contemporary soils of rapidly growing and intensively managed pine forests.  Richter and colleagues work to expand the concept of soil as the full biogeochemical weathering system of the Earth’s crust, ie, the Earth’s belowground Critical Zone, which can be tens of meters deep.  The research examines decadal to millennial changes in the chemistry and cycling of soil C, N, P, Ca, K, Mg, and trace elements B, Fe, Mn, Cu, Be, Zr, and Zn across full soil profiles as deep at 30-m.  Since 1988, Richter has worked at and directed the Long-Term Calhoun Soil-Ecosystem Experiment (LTSE) in the Piedmont of South Carolina, a collaborative study with the USDA Forest Service that quantifies how soils form as natural bodies and are transformed by human action, and a study that has grown to become an international model for such long-term soil and ecosystem studies.  In 2005, Richter and students initiated the first comprehensive international inventory project of the world’s LTSEs, using an advanced-format website that has networked metadata from 250 LTSEs.  The LTSEs project has held three workshops at Duke University, NCSU's Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and the USDA Forest Service's Calhoun Experimental Forest and Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, hosting representatives from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas.  Richter's 60-year old Long Term Calhoun Soil and Ecosystem Experiment is linked to similar experiments and platforms around the world via the ‘Long-Term Soil-Ecosystem Experiments Global Inventory’, assembled by Dan Richter, Pete Smith, and Mike Hofmockel."He is an active member of the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Working Group on the Anthropocene.  Richter has written in the peer-reviewed literature about all of these projects, and in November 2014 his soils research at the Calhoun and his soils teaching were featured in Science magazine.

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