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The fate of soil organic carbon (SOC) in boreal forests is dependent on the integrative ecosystem response to climate change. For example, boreal forest productivity is often nitrogen (N) limited, and climate warming can enhance N cycling and primary productivity. However, the net effect of this feedback on the SOC reservoir and its longevity with climate change remain unclear due to difficulty in detecting small differences between large and variable carbon (C) fluxes needed to determine net changes in soil reservoirs. The diagenetic state of SOC – resulting from the physicochemical and biological transformations that alter the original biomolecular composition of detrital inputs to soil over time – is useful for tracing the net response of SOC at the timescales relevant to climate change not usually discernible from fluxes and stocks alone. Here, we test two hypotheses using a mesic boreal forest climate transect: (1) the SOC diagenetic state is maintained across this climosequence, and (2) the maintenance of the SOC diagenetic state is a consequence of coupled soil C and N cycling, signifying the role of enhanced N cycling supporting SOC inputs that maintain SOC stocks within the warmer-climate forests. Shifts in nonvascular to vascular plant inputs with climate observed in these and other boreal forests highlighted the need to carefully separate biogeochemical indicators of SOC source from those signifying diagenetic alteration. We thus evaluated and applied lignin biomarkers to assess the diagenetic alteration of SOC in these boreal forest organic soils and directly compared the lignin diagenetic state with that of soil organic nitrogen (SON) assessed through amino acid composition. The lignin diagenetic state remained constant across the climate transect, indicating a balance between the input and removal of lignin in these mesic boreal forests. When combined with previous knowledge of these forest ecosystems, including the diagenetic state of SON and direct measures of C fluxes and stocks, the results indicate a coupled increase in C and N cycling with climate warming that supports forest productivity and maintains SOC stocks. This balance could markedly shift as other factors begin to limit forest productivity (e.g., trace nutrients, water) with further climate change or affect forest nutrient allocation (e.g., forest age or compositional change). Further application of the approach presented here could be used to detect the limits of this and other ecosystem–climate feedbacks, by providing a tractable and parameterizable index of the lignin state across large spatial scales, necessary for ecosystem-scale parameterizations.

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Myers-Pigg, A. N., Kaiser, K., Benner, R., & Ziegler, S. E. (2023). Soil organic matter diagenetic state informs boreal forest ecosystem feedbacks to climate change. Biogeosciences, 20(2), 489–503.


© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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