Biogeographic variation in temperature sensitivity of decomposition in forest soils

Jinquan Li, Ming Nie, Elise Pendall, Peter B. Reich, Junmin Pei, Nam Jin Noh, Ting Zhu, Bo Li, Changming Fang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Determining soil carbon (C) responses to rising temperature is critical for projections of the feedbacks between terrestrial ecosystems, C cycle, and climate change. However, the direction and magnitude of this feedback remain highly uncertain due largely to our limited understanding of the spatial heterogeneity of soil C decomposition and its temperature sensitivity. Here we quantified C decomposition and its response to temperature change with an incubation study of soils from 203 sites across tropical to boreal forests in China spanning a wide range of latitudes (18°16′ to 51°37′N) and longitudes (81°01′ to 129°28′E). Mean annual temperature (MAT) and mean annual precipitation primarily explained the biogeographic variation in the decomposition rate and temperature sensitivity of soils: soil C decomposition rate decreased from warm and wet forests to cold and dry forests, while Q10-MAT (standardized to the MAT of each site) values displayed the opposite pattern. In contrast, biological factors (i.e. plant productivity and soil bacterial diversity) and soil factors (e.g. clay, pH, and C availability of microbial biomass C and dissolved organic C) played relatively small roles in the biogeographic patterns. Moreover, no significant relationship was found between Q10-MAT and soil C quality, challenging the current C quality–temperature hypothesis. Using a single, fixed Q10-MAT value (the mean across all forests), as is usually done in model predictions, would bias the estimated soil CO2 emissions at a temperature increase of 3.0°C. This would lead to overestimation of emissions in warm biomes, underestimation in cold biomes, and likely significant overestimation of overall C release from soil to the atmosphere. Our results highlight that climate-related biogeographic variation in soil C responses to temperature needs to be included in next-generation C cycle models to improve predictions of C-climate feedbacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1873-1885
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Prof. Eric A. Davidson for his insightful discussions during the preparation of the manuscript, and two anonymous reviewers who improved the quality of the final version. This work was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2018YFC1406402 and 2017YFC1200100), the Australian Research Council (DP170102766), the National Science Foundation of China (41630528 and 31670491), the Young Thousand Talents Program Scholar, and the China Scholarship Council (CSC).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • Q
  • carbon cycle
  • carbon cycle modelling
  • carbon decomposition
  • climate change
  • forest
  • spatial heterogeneity
  • temperature sensitivity


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