Peatland warming strongly increases fine-root growth

TitlePeatland warming strongly increases fine-root growth
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsMalhotra A, Brice DJ, Childs J, Graham JD, Hobbie EA, Stel HVander, Feron SC, Hanson PJ, Iversen CM
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Date Published06/2020
AbstractSignificance Peatlands store up to two-thirds of the world’s soil carbon, but this carbon may be released under warmer conditions, creating an important climate feedback. The belowground warming response of peatlands is particularly uncertain even though factors such as plant root growth regulate ecosystem water, carbon, and nutrient cycles. We studied how peatland fine roots respond to warming in a whole-ecosystem experiment. Fine-root growth increased dramatically, +130% for a degree of warming, primarily driven by soil drying. This warming response is 20 times stronger than in other ecosystem experiments, highlighting peatland vulnerability to warming. Our study elucidates large and rapid belowground changes that will affect peatlands of a warmer world and their ability to store carbon into the future. Abstract Belowground climate change responses remain a key unknown in the Earth system. Plant fine-root response is especially important to understand because fine roots respond quickly to environmental change, are responsible for nutrient and water uptake, and influence carbon cycling. However, fine-root responses to climate change are poorly constrained, especially in northern peatlands, which contain up to two-thirds of the world’s soil carbon. We present fine-root responses to warming between +2 °C and 9 °C above ambient conditions in a whole-ecosystem peatland experiment. Warming strongly increased fine-root growth by over an order of magnitude in the warmest treatment, with stronger responses in shrubs than in trees or graminoids. In the first year of treatment, the control (+0 °C) shrub fine-root growth of 0.9 km m−2 y−1 increased linearly by 1.2 km m−2 y−1 (130%) for every degree increase in soil temperature. An extended belowground growing season accounted for 20% of this dramatic increase. In the second growing season of treatment, the shrub warming response rate increased to 2.54 km m−2 °C−1. Soil moisture was negatively correlated with fine-root growth, highlighting that drying of these typically water-saturated ecosystems can fuel a surprising burst in shrub belowground productivity, one possible mechanism explaining the “shrubification” of northern peatlands in response to global change. This previously unrecognized mechanism sheds light on how peatland fine-root response to warming and drying could be strong and rapid, with consequences for the belowground growing season duration, microtopography, vegetation composition, and ultimately, carbon function of these globally relevant carbon sinks.
Short TitleProc Natl Acad Sci USA