Decomposition of Senesced leaf litter is faster in tall compared to low birch shrub tundra
Many Low Arctic tundra regions are currently undergoing a vegetation shift towards increasing growth and groundcover of tall deciduous shrubs due to recent climate warming. Vegetation change directly affects ecosystem carbon balance, but it can also affect soil biogeochemical cycling through physical and biological feedback mechanisms. Recent studies indicate that enhanced snow accumulation around relatively tall shrubs has negligible physical effect on litter decomposition rates. However, these investigations were no more than 3 years, and therefore may be insufficient to detect differences in inherently slow biogeochemical processes. Here, we report a 5-year study near Daring Lake, Canada, comparing Betula neoalaskana foliar litter decay rates within unmanipulated and snowfenced low-stature birch (height: ~ 0.3 m) plots to test the physical effect of experimentally deepened snow, and within tall birch (height: ~ 0.8 m) plots to test the combined physical and biological effects, that is, deepened snow plus strong birch dominance. Having corrected for carbon gain by the colonizing decomposers, actual litter carbon loss increased by approximately 25% in the tall birch relative to both low birch sites. Decay of lignin-like acid unhydrolizable litter residues also accelerated in the tall birch site, and a similar but lower magnitude response in the snowfenced low birch site indicated that physical effects of deepened snow were at least partially responsible. In contrast, deepened snow alone did not affect litter carbon loss. Our findings suggest that a combination of greater litter inputs, altered soil microbial community, enhanced soil nutrient pools, and warmer winter soils together promote relatively fast decomposition of recalcitrant litter carbon in tall birch shrub environments.