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Effects of forest expansion on mountain grassland: changes within soil organic carbon fractions

Guidi, Claudia, Magid, Jakob, Rodeghiero, Mirco, Gianelle, Damiano, Vesterdal, Lars
Plant and soil 2014 v.385 no.1-2 pp. 373-387
land use change, grasslands, fractionation, forest succession, soil organic carbon, mineral soils, mixed forests, environmental management, Picea abies, soil sampling, aggregate stability, Fagus sylvatica, Alps region
BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Grassland abandonment followed by forest succession is the dominant land-use change in the European Alps. We studied the impact of current forest expansion on mountain grassland on changes in physical soil organic carbon (SOC) fractions along a land-use and management gradient, focusing on changes in aggregate stability and particulate organic matter (POM). METHODS: Four successional stages were investigated: managed grassland, two transitional phases in which grassland abandonment led to colonization by Picea abies (L.) Karst., and old mixed forest dominated by Fagus sylvatica L. and P. abies. Soil samples collected from the mineral soil (0–5 cm, 5–10 cm, 10–20 cm) were fractionated following two procedures: 1) aggregate size fractionation, separating aggregates based on their dimension, and 2) size-density fractionation, separating stable aggregates from non-occluded POM. RESULTS: The dimension of aggregates assessed by aggregate size fractionation tended to increase, whereas SOC allocation to stable aggregates assessed by size-density fractionation decreased following conversion of grassland to forest (e.g. from 81 to 59 % in the 0–5 cm layer). The amount of SOC stored in POM increased by 3.8 Mg ha⁻¹in the integrated 0–20 cm layer from managed grassland to old forest. CONCLUSIONS: The combination of two physical SOC fractionation procedures revealed that natural forest succession on abandoned grasslands led to a decline in physical SOC stability in the mineral soil, suggesting that SOC can become more susceptible to management and environmental change.