skip to main content
OSTI.GOV title logo U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Scientific and Technical Information

Title: Toward a Predictive Understanding of the Response of Belowground Microbial Carbon Turnover to Climate Change Drivers in a Boreal Peatland

Abstract

Peatlands are wetlands that act as giant "carbon banks", storing approximately one-third of Earth's soil carbon. Peatland carbon banks cover large areas in northern latitudes including the Arctic and evidence from previous work suggests that northern peatlands store a lot of carbon partly because they are cold and microbes don't work very fast to decompose organic matter in the cold. The concern is that with increasing temperatures, microbes will be become more active and release more carbon from the "bank" as greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and natural gas (methane). However, there are many more factors that could determine why peatlands store so much carbon such as the fact that they are acidic, low in oxygen, or because they contain a peat moss carpet. All of these factors have been shown to slow down the activity of microbes that release greenhouse gases through the decomposition of organic matter. For example, peat mosses naturally produce organic chemical compounds that are thought to poison microbes, thereby limiting their activity. For this reason, peat moss was used in the past as a food preservative. As the amount of carbon dioxide increases in Earth's atmosphere, it also predicted that plants will become more active andmore » produce more usable organic matter for microbes. Therefore, this project addressed the resilience of the peatland carbon bank to warming and the accumulation carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The project was conducted at the Marcell Experimental Forest (MEF), northern Minnesota, where the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) has established an experimental site known as Spruce and Peatland Response Under Climatic and Environmental Change (SPRUCE). The SPRUCE site simulates environmental change at the ecosystem scale, allowing us to understand how all organisms, from microbes to trees, will respond to higher temperatures and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. From 2014 to 2017, the response of peatlands to environmental change was evaluated through multiple field campaigns each year along with laboratory research. Environmental changes were initiated in stages; soil heating began in 2014, air heating in 2015, and carbon dioxide enrichment in 2016. It was shown that after 1 year, soil heating alone resulted in an exponential increase in methane release to the atmosphere. However, this response was due solely to surface processes and not degradation of deep peat, which represents much older carbon stores. Studies in the laboratory showed that only the top 20–30 cm of peat from experimental plots had higher methane production rates at elevated temperatures. Further investigations using the latest advanced analytical chemistry and microbiology methods confirmed that greenhouse gas production primarily originated from decomposition of organic matter produced recently by plants and not from old peat. No differences in microbial abundances, dissolved organic matter concentrations or degradative enzyme activities were observed among treatments after 1 year of soil heating alone. The activity and not the abundance of microbial communities responded over this time scale. Subsequent field investigations from 2015 to 2017 supported these initial investigations that changes in chemistry and the release of gases from microbial activity was primarily occurring at the surface of the peatland. Thus, our initial results over the first few years of simulated environmental change indicated that the large store of deep peat carbon will be resistant to anaerobic degradation under future climatic warming. Peatland soils are poor in mineral nutrients, and it was thought previously that the decomposition of plant matter in the soil is controlled by processes leading primarily to methane production (methanogenesis), ultimately producing similar amounts of carbon dioxide and methane during organic matter degradation. However, we observed that much more carbon dioxide is produced than methane from the surface peatland. Using a combination of state of the art molecular techniques, this project showed that novel microbial processes involving the respiration or “breathing” of organic matter itself may be responsible for most of gas release from the peatland as carbon dioxide. This has opened up a whole new area of research in how wetlands respond to environmental change.« less

Authors:
ORCiD logo [1];  [2];  [3]
  1. Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta, GA (United States)
  2. Florida State Univ., Tallahassee, FL (United States)
  3. Oak Ridge National Lab. (ORNL), Oak Ridge, TN (United States)
Publication Date:
Research Org.:
Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta, GA (United States)
Sponsoring Org.:
USDOE Office of Science (SC), Biological and Environmental Research (BER) (SC-23). Climate and Environmental Sciences Division
OSTI Identifier:
1508979
Report Number(s):
DOE-GATECH-12088
4043853325
DOE Contract Number:  
SC0012088
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Resource Relation:
Related Information: Publications supported by this research.
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
54 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES; peatland; wetland; environmental change

Citation Formats

Kostka, Joel, Chanton, Jeffrey P., and Schadt, Christopher W. Toward a Predictive Understanding of the Response of Belowground Microbial Carbon Turnover to Climate Change Drivers in a Boreal Peatland. United States: N. p., 2018. Web. doi:10.2172/1508979.
Kostka, Joel, Chanton, Jeffrey P., & Schadt, Christopher W. Toward a Predictive Understanding of the Response of Belowground Microbial Carbon Turnover to Climate Change Drivers in a Boreal Peatland. United States. doi:10.2172/1508979.
Kostka, Joel, Chanton, Jeffrey P., and Schadt, Christopher W. Fri . "Toward a Predictive Understanding of the Response of Belowground Microbial Carbon Turnover to Climate Change Drivers in a Boreal Peatland". United States. doi:10.2172/1508979. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1508979.
@article{osti_1508979,
title = {Toward a Predictive Understanding of the Response of Belowground Microbial Carbon Turnover to Climate Change Drivers in a Boreal Peatland},
author = {Kostka, Joel and Chanton, Jeffrey P. and Schadt, Christopher W.},
abstractNote = {Peatlands are wetlands that act as giant "carbon banks", storing approximately one-third of Earth's soil carbon. Peatland carbon banks cover large areas in northern latitudes including the Arctic and evidence from previous work suggests that northern peatlands store a lot of carbon partly because they are cold and microbes don't work very fast to decompose organic matter in the cold. The concern is that with increasing temperatures, microbes will be become more active and release more carbon from the "bank" as greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and natural gas (methane). However, there are many more factors that could determine why peatlands store so much carbon such as the fact that they are acidic, low in oxygen, or because they contain a peat moss carpet. All of these factors have been shown to slow down the activity of microbes that release greenhouse gases through the decomposition of organic matter. For example, peat mosses naturally produce organic chemical compounds that are thought to poison microbes, thereby limiting their activity. For this reason, peat moss was used in the past as a food preservative. As the amount of carbon dioxide increases in Earth's atmosphere, it also predicted that plants will become more active and produce more usable organic matter for microbes. Therefore, this project addressed the resilience of the peatland carbon bank to warming and the accumulation carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The project was conducted at the Marcell Experimental Forest (MEF), northern Minnesota, where the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) has established an experimental site known as Spruce and Peatland Response Under Climatic and Environmental Change (SPRUCE). The SPRUCE site simulates environmental change at the ecosystem scale, allowing us to understand how all organisms, from microbes to trees, will respond to higher temperatures and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. From 2014 to 2017, the response of peatlands to environmental change was evaluated through multiple field campaigns each year along with laboratory research. Environmental changes were initiated in stages; soil heating began in 2014, air heating in 2015, and carbon dioxide enrichment in 2016. It was shown that after 1 year, soil heating alone resulted in an exponential increase in methane release to the atmosphere. However, this response was due solely to surface processes and not degradation of deep peat, which represents much older carbon stores. Studies in the laboratory showed that only the top 20–30 cm of peat from experimental plots had higher methane production rates at elevated temperatures. Further investigations using the latest advanced analytical chemistry and microbiology methods confirmed that greenhouse gas production primarily originated from decomposition of organic matter produced recently by plants and not from old peat. No differences in microbial abundances, dissolved organic matter concentrations or degradative enzyme activities were observed among treatments after 1 year of soil heating alone. The activity and not the abundance of microbial communities responded over this time scale. Subsequent field investigations from 2015 to 2017 supported these initial investigations that changes in chemistry and the release of gases from microbial activity was primarily occurring at the surface of the peatland. Thus, our initial results over the first few years of simulated environmental change indicated that the large store of deep peat carbon will be resistant to anaerobic degradation under future climatic warming. Peatland soils are poor in mineral nutrients, and it was thought previously that the decomposition of plant matter in the soil is controlled by processes leading primarily to methane production (methanogenesis), ultimately producing similar amounts of carbon dioxide and methane during organic matter degradation. However, we observed that much more carbon dioxide is produced than methane from the surface peatland. Using a combination of state of the art molecular techniques, this project showed that novel microbial processes involving the respiration or “breathing” of organic matter itself may be responsible for most of gas release from the peatland as carbon dioxide. This has opened up a whole new area of research in how wetlands respond to environmental change.},
doi = {10.2172/1508979},
journal = {},
number = ,
volume = ,
place = {United States},
year = {2018},
month = {8}
}