Factors controlling soil organic carbon stocks in hardwood floodplain forests of the lower middle Elbe River

  • We assessed key relationships of soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks to hydromorphic features, soil texture, C/N ratio, pH, and forest age in hardwood floodplain forests. Floodplain ecosystems play a significant role in the global carbon cycle, particularly due to their SOC storage potential. Interactions between heterogeneous micro-relief and anthropogenically affected vegetation and the hydrologic situation of floodplains make predicting SOC stocks difficult without field validation. Especially within hardwood floodplain forests, the controlling factors for SOC storage remain understudied, whereas these floodplain types can be the largest reservoir for carbon and have a substantial SOC sequestration potential. To determine the controlling factors for SOC storage, we selected 38 hardwood floodplain forest and 11 floodplain grasslands of the lower middle Elbe River and categorized them according to vegetation type (grassland, young forest, or old forest) and hydrologic situation (low-lying or high elevated and active or former floodplain). Profile SOC stocks were determined to a depth of 1 m, and topsoil SOC stocks were related to vegetation and soil characteristics, particularly pedological traits (e.g., hydromorphic features).

    Forest SOC stocks ranged between 99 and 149 t ha−1. SOC stocks decreased with depth throughout all categories and were unaffected by vegetation type within the same hydrologic situation. Vegetation parameters such as age, basal area, or leaf litter carbon stock had no direct effect on SOC stocks. An active connection to the river had the strongest effect on SOC stocks, with former floodplain sites storing 33% less SOC than the active sites. Within the active floodplains, low sites stored 50% more SOC than high sites. This effect was mainly controlled by relief-affected features such as flooding duration and fine texture, which also were the strongest univariate predictors for SOC stocks (R2 = 0.39 and 0.63). A multiple linear regression showed that fine texture, pH, C/N ratio and forest age can be used to explain 86% of variance in SOC stocks.

    We conclude that proxies for relief and sedimentation (i.e., hydromorphic features, flooding duration, soil texture, C/N ratio, and pH) are the strongest factors controlling SOC stocks in hardwood floodplain forests. Both can be related to allochthonous carbon inputs, increasing SOC stabilization through the accumulation of fine soil particles, and decreasing aerobic carbon mineralization potential through oxygen scarcity, while vegetation plays only a subordinate role.

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