Loss of carbon from alpine soil in a warmer world

The uphill migration of lowland plants in response to climate warming could cause soil microbes in alpine ecosystems to release more carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.

Flowers in the alpine ecosystem where the field experiments were performed. Image credit: Jake Alexander (CC BY 4.0)

In a terrestrial ecosystem, the carbon cycle primarily represents the balance between plants consuming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and soil microbes releasing carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere (mostly as carbon dioxide). Given that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, the balance of carbon inputs and outputs from an ecosystem can have important consequences for climate change.

Rising temperatures caused by climate warming have led plants from lowland ecosystems to migrate uphill and start growing in alpine ecosystems, where temperatures are lower and most carbon is stored in the soil. Soil microbes use carbon stored in the soil and exuded from plants to grow, and they release this carbon – in the form of carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere through respiration. Walker et al. wanted to know how the arrival of lowland plants in alpine ecosystems under climate warming would affect carbon stores in the soil.

To answer this question, Walker et al. simulated warmer temperatures by moving turfs (plants and soil) from alpine ecosystems to a warmer downhill site and planting lowland plants into the turfs. They compared the concentration of soil carbon in these turfs to that of soil in alpine turfs that had not been moved downhill and had no lowland plants. Their results showed that the warmed turfs containing lowland plants had a lower concentration of soil carbon. This suggests that climate warming will lead to more soil carbon being released into the atmosphere if lowland plants also migrate into alpine ecosystems.

Walker et al. also wanted to know the mechanism through which lowland plants were decreasing soil carbon concentration under warming. They find that lowland plants probably release more small molecules into the soil than alpine plants. Soil microbes use the carbon and nutrients in these molecules to break down more complex molecules in the soil, thereby releasing nutrients and carbon that can then be used in respiration. This finding suggests that soil microbes breakdown and respire native soil carbon faster in the presence of lowland plants, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and reducing carbon stores in the soil.

Walker et al.’s results reveal a new mechanism through which uphill migration of lowland plants could increase the effects of climate change, in a feedback loop. Further research as to whether this mechanism occurs in different regions and ecosystems could help to quantify the magnitude of this feedback and allow scientists to make more accurate predictions about climate change.