Recovering soils suffer carbon loss

When dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and I was in high school, acid rain became big news.  Even my dad, who as an industrial chemist believed that industry seldom sinned, acknowledged that he could see how coal plants could release sulfur (and other) compounds, which would be converted to strong acids, borne by prevailing winds to distant destinations, and deposited by rain and snow into soils. Forest ecosystems in North America and Europe are happily, albeit slowly, recovering from the adverse effects of acid deposition, but there are some causes for concern.  At the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, USA, researchers experimentally remediated some of the impacts of acid deposition by adding calcium silicate to a watershed (via helicopter!). A decade later, this treatment had caused a 35% decline in the total carbon stored in the soil. This result was very unexpected and alarming, as this could mean that acid-impacted temperate forests may become major sources of CO2, with more carbon running off into streams, and some becoming atmospheric CO2, as the effects of acid rain wane. Richard Marinos and Emily Bernhardt wanted to determine exactly what caused this carbon loss to better understand how forests will behave in the future as they recover from acidification.


The forest at Hubbard Brook in the Autumn. Credit: Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study at

The problem is that calcium and acidity (lower pH is more acid: higher pH is more alkaline) have different and complex effects on plants, soil microorganisms and the soils in which they live. Several previous studies demonstrated that higher soil pH (becoming more alkaline) caused an increase in carbon solubility, while higher calcium levels caused carbon to become less soluble. Soluble organic carbon forms a tiny fraction of total soil carbon, but is very important because it can be used by microorganisms for cellular respiration, and also can be leached from ecosystems as runoff. In general, soil microorganisms benefit as acidic soils recover because heavy metal toxicity is reduced, enzymes work better, and mycorrhizal associations are more robust.  Complicating the picture even more, both elevated calcium and increased pH have been associated with increased plant growth, but increased calcium is also associated with reduced fine root growth.

To help unravel this complexity, Marinos and Bernhardt experimentally tested the effects of increasing pH and increased calcium on soil organic carbon (SOC) solubility, microbial activity and plant growth.  They collected acidic soil from Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, which formed three distinct layers: leaf litter on top, organic horizon below the leaf litter, and mineral soil below the organic horizon.


Soil excavation site at Hubbard Brook. Credit: Richard Marinos.

The researchers then filled 100 2.5-liter pots with these three soil layers (in correct sequence) and planted 50 pots with sugar maple saplings, leaving 50 pots unplanted.  Pots were moved to a greenhouse, and that November given one of five treatments: calcium chloride addition (Ca treatment), potassium hydroxide addition (alkalinity treatment), Ca + alkalinity treatment combined, a deionized water control, and a potassium chloride control. The potassium chloride control had no effect, so we won’t discuss it further.


Potted sugar maple saplings used for the experiments. Credit Richard Marinos.

The following July, Marinos and Bernhardt harvested all of the pots, carefully separating plant roots from the soil, and analyzing the organic horizon and mineral soil levels separately (there wasn’t enough leaf litter remaining for analysis). The researchers measured SOC by mixing soil from each pot with deionized water, centrifuging at high speed to extract the water-soluble material, combusting the material at high temperature and measuring how much CO2 was generated. The result is termed water extractable organic carbon (WEOC).

Remember that previous studies had shown that higher calcium levels decreased carbon solubility, while higher alkalinity increased carbon solubility. Surprisingly, Marinos and Bernhardt found that in unplanted pots, the Ca treatment reduced WEOC in both soil layers, while the alkalinity treatment decreased WEOC in the organic horizon, but not in mineral soil. In pots planted with maple saplings, the Ca treatment had no effect on WEOC, while the alkalinity treatment, and the Ca + alkalinity treatment, increased WEOC markedly.


Water-Extractable Organic Carbon in soil without plants (left column) and with plants (right column). Top graphs are organic horizon soils and bottom graphs are mineral horizon soils. Error bars are 1 standard error.

The next question was how might soil microorganisms fit into the plant-soil dynamics?


Soil respirations rates (top) over the short term (days 1-7 post-harvest) and (bottom) the long term (days 8-75 post-harvest). Error bars are 1 standard error.

Soil microorganisms use carbon products for cellular respiration, so the researchers expected that soils with more SOC would have higher respiration rates.  They measured soil respiration 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 35 and 72 days after the harvest, so they could evaluate both short-term and long-term effects. In unplanted pots, soil respiration rates were unaffected by treatment.  But in planted pots, the alkalinity treatment increased soil respiration rates considerably in the short term (top graphs), but much less so in the long-term (bottom graphs). Putting the WEOC data from the figure above together with the respiration data from the two figures to your left, you can see that in pots with plants, increased alkalinity was associated with more SOC and higher respiration rates.

The researchers weighed the saplings after harvest and discovered that the sugar maples grew best in soils treated with calcium. Two previous studies had treated fields with calcium silicate and found better sugar maple growth in the treated fields.  Marinos and Bernhardt argue that their study provides evidence that it is the Ca enrichment, and not the increased pH, that caused increased growth for both of those studies.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that higher alkalinity increased soil microbial activity only in pots with plants, and had no effect on soil microbial activity in pots without plants. Somehow, the plants in an alkaline environment are increasing the rate of microbial respiration, perhaps by releasing carbohydrates produced by photosynthesis into the soil, which could then stimulate decomposition of SOC by the microorganisms. Finding that this effect largely disappeared a few days after harvest (bottom graph above), supports the idea that the plants are releasing a substance that helps microorganisms carry on cellular respiration. But this idea awaits further study. In the meantime, we have a better understanding of how forest recovery from acid rain affects one aspect of the carbon cycle, though many other human inputs may interact with this recovery process.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Marinos, R. E. and Bernhardt, E. S. (2018), Soil carbon losses due to higher pH offset vegetation gains due to calcium enrichment in an acid mitigation experiment. Ecology, 99: 2363-2373. doi:10.1002/ecy.2478. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Rice fields foster biodiversity

Restoration ecologists want to restore ecosystems that have been damaged or destroyed by human activity.  One approach they use is “rewilding” – which can mean different things to different people.  To some, rewilding involves returning large predators to an ecosystem, thereby reestablishing important ecological linkages.  To others, rewilding requires corridors that link different wild areas, so animals can migrate from one area to another.  One common thread in most concepts of rewilding is that once established, restored ecosystems should be self-sustaining, so that if ecosystems are left to their own devices, ecological linkages and biological diversity can return to pre-human-intervention levels, and remain at those levels in the future.

ardea intermedia (intermediate egret). photo by n. katayama

The intermediate egrit, Ardea intermedia, plucks a fish from a flooded rice field. Credit: N. Katayama.

Chieko Koshida and Naoki Katayama argue that rewilding may not always increase biological diversity.  In some cases, allowing ecosystems to return to their pre-human-intervention state can actually cause biological diversity to decline. Koshida and Katayama were surveying bird diversity in abandoned rice fields, and noticed that bird species distributions were different in long-abandoned rice fields in comparison to still-functioning rice fields.  To follow up on their observations, they surveyed the literature, and found 172 studies that addressed how rice field abandonment in Japan affected species richness (number of species) or abundance.  For the meta-analysis we will be discussing today, an eligible study needed to compare richness and/or abundance for at least two of three management states: (1) cultivated (tilled, flood irrigated, rice planted, and harvested every year), (2) fallow (tilled or mowed once every 1-3 years), and (3) long-abandoned (unmanaged for at least three years).


Three different rice field management states – cultivated, fallow and long-abandoned – showing differences in vegetation and water conditions. Credit: C. Koshida.

Meta-analyses are always challenging, because the data are collected by many researchers, and for a variety of purposes.  For example, some researchers may only be interested in whether invasive species were present, or they may not be interested in how many individuals of a particular species were present. Ultimately 35 studies met Koshida and Katayama’s criteria for their meta-analysis (29 in Japanese and six in English).

Overall, abandoning or fallowing rice fields decreased species richness or abundance to 72% of the value of cultivated rice fields. As you might suspect, these effects were not uniform for different variables or comparisons. Not surprisingly, fish and amphibians declined sharply in abandoned rice fields – much more than other groups of organisms. Abundance declined more sharply in abandoned fields than did species richness.  Several other trends also emerged.  For example, complex landscapes such as yatsuda (forested valleys) and tanada (hilly terraces) were more affected than were simple landscapes.  In addition, wetter abandoned fields were able to maintain biological diversity, while dryer abandoned fields declined in richness and abundance.


The effects of rice field abandonment or fallowing for eight different variables.  Effect size is the ln (Mt/Mc), where Mt = mean species richness or abundance for the treatment, and Mc = mean species richness for the control.  The treated field in all comparisons was the one that was abandoned for the longer time.  A positive effect size means that species richness or abundance  increased in the treated (longer abandoned) field, while a negative effect size means that species richness or abundance declined in the treated field. Numbers in parentheses are number of data sets used for comparisons.

When numerous variables are considered, researchers need to figure out which are most important.  Koshida and Katayama used a statistical approach known as “random forest” to model the impact of different variables on the reduction in biological diversity following abandonment.  This approach generates a variable – the percentage increase in mean square error (%increaseMSE) – which indicates the importance of each variable for the model (we won’t go into how this is done!).  As the graph below shows, soil moisture was the most important variable, which tells us (along with the previous figure above) that abandoned fields that maintained high moisture levels also kept their biological diversity, while those that dried out lost out considerably.  Management state was the second most important variable, as long-abandoned fields lost considerably more biological diversity than did fallow fields.


Importance estimates of each variable (as measured by %increase MSE).  Higher values indicate greater importance.

Unfortunately, only three studies had data on changes in biological diversity over the long-term.  All three of these studies surveyed plant species richness over a 6 – 15 year period, so Koshida and Katayama combined them to explore whether plant species richness recovers following long-term rice field abandonment. Based on these studies, species richness continues to decline over the entire time period.


Plant species richness in relation to time since rice fields were abandoned (based on three studies).

Koshida and Katayama conclude that left to their own devices, some ecosystems, like rice fields, will actually decrease, rather than increase, in biological diversity.  Rice fields are, however, special cases, because they provide alternatives to natural wetlands for many organisms dependent on aquatic/wetland environments (such as the frog below). In this sense, rice fields should be viewed as ecological refuges for these groups of organisms.


Rana porosa porosa (Tokyo Daruma Pond Frog). Credit: Y. G. Baba

These findings also have important management implications.  For example, conservation ecologists can promote biological diversity in abandoned rice fields by mowing and flooding. In addition, managers should pay particular attention to abandoned rice fields with complex structure, as they are particularly good reservoirs of biological diversity, and are likely to lose species if allowed to dry out. Failure to attend to these issues could lead to local extinctions of specialist wetland species and of terrestrial species that live in grasslands surrounding rice fields. Lastly, restoration ecologists working on other types of ecosystems need to carefully consider the effects on biological diversity of allowing those ecosystems to return to their natural state without any human intervention.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Koshida, C. and Katayama, N. (2018), Meta‐analysis of the effects of rice‐field abandonment on biodiversity in Japan. Conservation Biology, 32: 1392-1402. doi:10.1111/cobi.13156. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.