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In forests, total belowground carbon (C) flux (TBCF) is a large component of the C budget and represents a critical pathway for delivery of plant C to soil. Reducing uncertainty around regional estimates of forest C cycling may be aided by incorporating knowledge of controls over soil respiration and TBCF. Photosynthesis, and presumably TBCF, declines with advancing tree size and age, and photosynthesis increases yet C partitioning to TBCF decreases in response to high soil fertility. We hypothesized that these causal relationships would result in predictable paterns of TBCF, and partitioning of C to TBCF, with natural variability in leaf area index (LAI), soil nitrogen (N), and tree height in subalpine forests in the Rocky Mountains, USA. Using three consecutive years of soil respiration data collected from 22 0.38-ha locations across three 1-km2 subalpine forested landscapes, we tested three hypotheses: (1) annual soil respiration and TBCF will show a hump-shaped relationship with LAI; (2) variability in TBCF unexplained by LAI will be related to soil nitrogen (N); and (3) partitioning of C to TBCF (relative to woody growth) will decline with increasing soil N and tree height. We found partial support for Hypothesis 1 and full support for Hypotheses 2 and 3. TBCF, but not soil respiration, was explained by LAI and soil N paterns (r2 = 0.49), and the ratio of annual TBCF to TBCF plus aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) was related to soil N and tree height (r2 = 0.72). Thus, forest C partitioning to TBCF can vary even within the same forest type and region, and approaches that assume a constant fraction of TBCF relative to ANPP may be missing some of this variability. These relationships can aid with estimates of forest soil respiration and TBCF across landscapes, using spatially explicit forest data such as national inventories or remotely sensed data products.
Berryman, E., Ryan, M. G., Bradford, J. B., Hawbaker, T. J., & Birdsey, R. (2016). Total belowground carbon flux in subalpine forests is related to leaf area index, soil nitrogen, and tree height. Ecosphere, 7(8). https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.1418