High-elevation meadows are biological hotspots that contain high densities of soil carbon (C). The capacity of these ecosystems to sequester C depends on a combination of high primary productivity, seasonally low temperatures, and anaerobic soil conditions associated with water tables at or near the soil surface. However, anthropogenic disturbances in many montane meadows in California’s Sierra Nevada have lowered water tables, decreased primary productivity, and created aerobic soil conditions – changes that may alter the balance of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reverse meadows from a net C sink to a net source. Recently, C policy in California has spurred interest in the potential of hydrologic restoration to increase C sequestration in meadows. However, soil C pools and fluxes in degraded meadows must be quantified before the impacts of restoration can accurately be assessed. In this study, we measured soil C stocks in surface soil (1 m) and annual soil GHG fluxes (carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O)) in three degraded, northern Sierra Nevada meadows. In a parallel laboratory incubation, we manipulated meadow soil water content to determine target goals for restoration of anaerobic conditions. Our results suggest that degraded meadows contain large reservoirs of existing C, but that this C may be vulnerable to decomposition under current conditions. Soil CO2 fluxes ranged from 26.7-33.1 Mg of CO2 ha-1 y-1, roughly equivalent to the amount of C sequestered annually by 70 acres of U.S. forests. These high rates of soil respiration, combined with low primary productivity, resulted in substantial losses of soil C with implications for climate change, ecosystem function, and restoration. Soils from these meadows were a net source of N2O and a net sink of CH4, but these fluxes were 4 orders of magnitude smaller than CO2. Also, we found substantial GHG emissions persist in these organic soils at peak soil moisture, suggesting that restoration may need to sustain soil water holding capacities in excess of 115%, and possibly 200%, for anaerobic soil conditions to return. These findings highlight the need to conserve properly functioning meadows and provide target conditions for optimal restoration of degraded meadows.
Reed, C.C.; Sullivan, B.W.; Hart, S.C.; Drew, M.; Merrill, A. (2016): Anthropogenic Disturbance of Montane Meadows May Cause Substantial Loss of Soil Carbon to the Atmosphere. Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union, December 2016. Abstract B21I-0545..