Roots in the tundra: relations between climate warming and root biomass and implications for vegetation change and carbon dynamics

Peng Wang

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

Abstract

Global climate has been warming up for the last decades and it will continue in this century. The Arctic is the part of the globe that warms fastest and is more sensitive to climate warming. Aboveground productivity of Arctic tundra has been shown to increase in response to warmer climates. However, belowground responses of tundra vegetation are still unclear. As the major part of plant biomass in tundra lies belowground, it is pivotal to investigate changes in the belowground parts of tundra vegetation for our understanding of climate warming effects on tundra ecosystems.

To get a general idea of how belowground plant biomass may change in a warmer climate, we synthesized published data on the belowground biomass of tundra vegetation across a broad gradient of mean annual air temperature from −20 to 0 °C. We found that aboveground biomass of tundra biomass indeed increases with mean annual temperature as well as summer air temperature, while belowground biomass did not show a significant relationship with temperature. The increases in the aboveground biomass were significantly larger than belowground biomass, resulting in reduced below/above ratios at higher temperatures. The shifted biomass allocation with temperature can influence the carbon dynamics of tundra ecosystems. Future tundra studies need to focus more on the species or functional type composition of belowground biomass and species or functional type specific belowground responses to climate warming.

To determine the seasonal changes and vertical distribution of root biomass of different plant functional types, we sampled roots at a Siberian tundra site in the early and late growing season, from vegetation types dominated by graminoids and shrubs respectively. We distinguished the roots of graminoids and shrubs, and found that shrub roots grew earlier and shallower than graminoid roots, which enables shrubs to gain advantage over graminoids at the early growing season when nutrient pulses occur during snowmelt and soil thaw. The deeper roots of graminoids can help them to be more competitive if climate warming induces more nutrient release in the deeper soil.

In a soil thawing and fertilization experiment, we further investigated the effects of increased thawing depth and nutrient supply in the upper soil, which can be the consequences of climate warming, on root biomass and its vertical distribution. In this study we distinguished between the roots of grasses, sedges, deciduous shrubs and evergreen shrubs. The study was done in a moist tussock tundra site with similar abundance of the different plant functional types. We found that only sedges benefited from the increased thawing depth, probably through their deepest root distribution among the four functional types, while the shrubs, which were shallower-rooted, benefited from the increased nutrient availability in the upper soil. The deep-rooted grasses had the highest plasticity in vertical root distribution, which enabled them also to benefit greatly from the fertilization. Our results show that tundra plants with different rooting strategies can show different responses to climate warming dependent on the relative warming impacts on the nutrient supply in shallow and deeper soil layers. This insight can help to predict future tundra vegetation dynamics.

The carbon balance of tundra ecosystems also depends on the decomposition of plant litter, particularly the root litter, which may account for a larger part of annual litter input than leaf litter in tundra ecosystems. Vegetation shifts also change litter quality which ultimately influences carbon dynamics. To investigate the differences in the decomposition of leaves and roots of graminoids and shrubs, we performed a litter transplant experiment. We found that although the decomposability of leaf litter did not differ between the graminoid and shrub, root decomposability might be lower for the shrub. However, this cannot be extrapolated to the overall decomposition in different vegetation types, as these different plant communities differ in rooting depths. We also found evidence of home-field advantage in the decomposition in Arctic tundra, and we show that the early stage of litter decomposition at our research site could be driven by the phosphorus concentration of the litter. To get a full understanding of the carbon balance of tundra ecosystems, much more efforts are needed to quantify litter input and decomposition.

In this thesis we show that belowground parts, which account for a major part of plant biomass in tundra, can show a different response to climate warming from aboveground parts. Belowground responses to climate warming can have crucial impacts on the competitive balance between tundra plants, and consequently result in vegetation shifts in tundra. Such shifts in species composition can have large effects on carbon dynamics through altered input and decomposability of plant litter, particularly root litter.

 

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Berendse, Frank, Promotor
  • Heijmans, Monique, Co-promotor
  • Mommer, Liesje, Co-promotor
Award date29 Aug 2016
Place of PublicationWageningen
Publisher
Print ISBNs9789462578609
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Keywords

  • roots
  • biomass
  • climatic change
  • vegetation
  • carbon
  • global warming
  • tundra
  • ecosystems
  • decomposition
  • siberia

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