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Recent study shows leaf litter regulates organic carbon levels in soil

A study in a tropical forest in Costa Rica that examined the role tree leaf litter plays in regulating the organic carbon stored in soil was recently selected by the Faculty of 1000 for special recognition. CFC alumnus Jonathan Leff conducted the study with researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of New Hampshire. Based on that research, they co-authored a paper titled “Experimental litterfall manipulation drives large and rapid changes in soil carbon cycling in a wet tropical forest,” which was published the journal Global Change Biology in September.

While pursuing his master’s degree at UM, Leff worked under terrestrial biogeochemistry Associate Professor Cory Cleveland. Leff examined the relationship between the amount of carbon added by plants, organic carbon in the soil and CO2 released through decomposition to the atmosphere.

Soils store the majority of Earth’s terrestrial organic carbon, so changes in these relationships could have important effects on the global carbon cycle and the climate system. Deforestation and agriculture have led to declines in plant-derived carbon inputs to the soil of tropical forests while the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing.

The effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 on belowground carbon cycling are not yet well known, but some data suggest temperature increases could cause declines in the vegetative productivity of tropical forests and thus lead to net losses of soil carbon. This could, in turn, enhance atmospheric CO2 emissions and accelerate climate warming.

Leff’s study suggests that shifts in leaf litter inputs in response to localized human disturbances and global environmental change could have rapid and important consequences for belowground carbon storage and CO2 fluxes in tropical rain forests. The authors also highlight potential differences between tropical and temperate ecosystems, where belowground carbon cycling responses to changes in litterfall are generally slower and more subtle. Overall, the results of Leff’s study suggest that changes in forest litterfall inputs could impact carbon cycling on a global scale. 

Faculty of 1000 is a directory of top articles in biology and medicine based on the recommendations of a faculty of 5,000 of the world’s leading scientists and clinical researchers and another 5,000 associates who work with them.