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Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2011

Temperature and soil organic matter decomposition rates – synthesis of current knowledge and a way forward

Conant RT, Ryan MG, Ågren Göran, Birge HE, Davidson EA, Eliasson Peter, Evans SE, Frey SD, Giardina CP, Hopkins FM, Hyvönen Riitta, Kirschbaum MUF, Lavallee JM, Leifeld J, Parton WJ, Steinweg JM, Wallenstein MD, Wetterstedt Martin, Bradford MA


The response of soil organic matter (OM) decomposition to increasing temperature is a critical aspect of ecosystem responses to global change. The impacts of climate warming on decomposition dynamics have not been resolved due to apparently contradictory results from field and lab experiments, most of which has focused on labile carbon with short turnover times. But the majority of total soil carbon stocks are comprised of organic carbon with turnover times of decades to centuries. Understanding the response of these carbon pools to climate change is essential for forecasting longer-term changes in soil carbon storage. Herein, we briefly synthesize information from recent studies that have been conducted using a wide variety of approaches. In our effort to understand research to-date, we derive a new conceptual model that explicitly identifies the processes controlling soil OM availability for decomposition and allows a more explicit description of the factors regulating OM decomposition under different circumstances. It explicitly defines resistance of soil OM to decomposition as being due either to its chemical conformation (quality) or its physico-chemical protection from decomposition. The former is embodied in the depolymerization process, the latter by adsorption/desorption and aggregate turnover. We hypothesize a strong role for variation in temperature sensitivity as a function of reaction rates for both. We conclude that important advances in understanding the temperature response of the processes that control substrate availability, depolymerization, microbial efficiency, and enzyme production will be needed to predict the fate of soil carbon stocks in a warmer world


decomposition; experiments; new conceptual model; review; soil carbon; temperature sensitivity

Published in

Global Change Biology
2011, volume: 17, number: 11, pages: 3392-3404

Authors' information

Conant, Richard T.
Colorado State University
Ryan, Michael G.
US Forest Service
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
Birge, Hannah E.
Colorado State University
Davidson, Eric A.
Woods Hole Research Center
Eliasson, Peter
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
Evans, Sarah E.
Colorado State University
Frey, Serita D.
University of New Hampshire
Giardina, Christian P.
US Forest Service
Hopkins, Francesca M.
University of California
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
Kirschbaum, Miko U. F.
Landcare Research
Lavallee, Jocelyn M.
Colorado State University
Leifeld, Jens
Parton, William J.
Colorado State University
Steinweg, Jessica Megan
University of Colorado
Wallenstein, Matthew D.
Colorado State University
Wetterstedt, Martin
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
Bradford, Mark A.
Yale University

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG13 Climate action

UKÄ Subject classification

Environmental Sciences related to Agriculture and Land-use
Renewable Bioenergy Research

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