Winter regulation of tundra litter carbon and nitrogen dynamics

Sarah E. Hobbie, F. Stuart Chapin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

194 Scopus citations


Mass and nitrogen (N) dynamics of leaf litter measured in Alaskan tussock tundra differed greatly from measurements of these processes made in temperate ecosystems. Nearly all litter mass and N loss occurred during the winter when soils were mostly frozen. Litter lost mass during the first summer, but during the subsequent two summers when biological activity was presumably higher than it is during winter, litter mass remained constant and litter immobilized N. By contrast, litter lost significant mass and N over both winters of measurement. Mass loss and N dynamics were unaffected by microsite variation in soil temperature and moisture. Whether wintertime mass and N loss resulted from biological activity during winter or from physical processes (e.g., fragmentation or leaching) associated with freeze-thaw is unknown, but has implications for how future climate warming will alter carbon (C) and N cycling in tundra. We hypothesize that spring runoff over permafrost as soils melt results in significant losses of C and N from litter, consistent with the observed influx of terrestrial organic matter to tundra lakes and streams after snow melt and the strong N limitation of terrestrial primary production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)327-338
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1996


  • Eriophorum
  • Hylocomium
  • Sphagnum
  • freeze-thaw
  • litter nitrogen
  • tundra decomposition


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