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Release of coarse woody detritus-related carbon: a synthesis across forest biomes

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Harmon, Mark E.; Fasth, Becky G.; Yatskov, Misha ; Kastendick, Douglas ; Rock, Joachim ; Woodall, Christopher W.

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Carbon Balance and Management


Background: Recent increases in forest tree mortality should increase the abundance coarse woody detritus (CWD) and ultimately lead to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, the time course of carbon release from CWD is not well understood. We compiled CWD decomposition rate-constants (i.e., k) to examine how tree species, piece diameter, position (i.e., standing versus downed), canopy openness, and macroclimate influenced k. To illustrate their implications we modeled the effect of species and position on estimates of decomposition-related carbon flux. We examined a subset of currently used models to determine if their structure accounted for these factors. Results: Globally k of downed CWD varied at least 244-fold with interspecies variation at individual sites up to 76-fold. While k generally decreased with increasing piece diameter, under open canopies the opposite occurred. Standing CWD sometimes exhibited little decomposition, but sometimes had k values up to 3 times faster than downed CWD. There was a clear response of k to mean annual temperature of ≈ 2.6 times per 10 ℃; however, there was considerable variation for a given mean annual temperature related to species, diameter, and position. A key feature of carbon release from CWD after disturbance was the "evolution" of the ecosystem-level k value as positions and species mixtures of the remaining CWD changed. Variations in decomposition caused by disturbance (e.g., changes in species, positions, sizes, and microclimate) had the potential to cause net carbon fluxes to the atmosphere to be highly nonlinear. While several models currently being used for carbon accounting and assessing land-use/climate change would potentially capture some of these post disturbance changes in fluxes and carbon balances, many would not. Conclusions: While much has been learned in the last 5 decades about CWD decomposition, to fully understand the time course of carbon release from increased mortality and other aspects of global change a new phase of global CWD research that is more systematic, experimental, and replicated needs to be initiated. If our findings are to be fully applied in modeling, an approach acknowledging how the rate of carbon release evolves over time should be implemented.


Coarse woody detritus; Decomposition; Forest carbon balance; Forest disturbance consequences; Heterotrophic respiration; Tree mortality effects


Harmon, Mark E.; Fasth, Becky G.; Yatskov, Misha; Kastendick, Douglas; Rock, Joachim; Woodall, Christopher W. 2020. Release of coarse woody detritus-related carbon: a synthesis across forest biomes. Carbon Balance and Management. 15: 1. 21 p.

Last updated on: July 27, 2020