U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Traits Drive Global Wood Decomposition Rates More than Climate
Published: August 14, 2018
Posted: December 28, 2018

The Science
Current projections suggest an increase in dead wood biomass as a result of more frequent and intense climate extremes and disturbances (e.g., deforestation, storms, drought, heat waves, and fire) in the future and thus wood decomposition plays a key role in regulating local and regional climates after disturbances. The decomposition rates depend on both wood characteristics (i.e., traits) and associated climates. This global meta-analysis study found that global variation in wood decomposition rates are mostly contributed by stoichiometric and geometric (e.g., surface area) wood traits (>50%), which is much larger than that contributed by climates (~20%).

The Impact
Understanding wood decomposition rates under global change is important for modeling the ecosystem feedbacks to climate. This study highlights the importance of wood traits for wood decomposition across global climate gradients. This challenges the conventional view that climate is the dominant driver of decomposition rates at broad spatial scales. This perspective provides the basis for future development and parameterization of decomposition within most Earth system models.

Wood decomposition is a major component of the global carbon cycle. Decomposition rates vary across climate gradients, which are thought to reflect the effects of temperature and moisture on the metabolic kinetics of decomposers. However, decomposition rates also vary with wood traits, which may reflect the influence of stoichiometry on decomposer metabolism as well as geometry relating the surface areas that decomposers colonize with the volumes they consume. In this study, we combined metabolic and geometric scaling theories to formalize hypotheses regarding the drivers of wood decomposition rates, and assessed these hypotheses using a global compilation of data on climate, wood traits, and wood decomposition rates. These results are consistent with predictions from both metabolic and geometric scaling theories. Approximately half of the global variation in decomposition rates was explained by wood traits (nitrogen content and diameter), whereas only a fifth was explained by climate variables (air temperature, precipitation, and relative humidity). These results indicate that global variation in wood decomposition rates is best explained by stoichiometric and geometric wood traits. These findings suggest that inclusion of wood traits in global carbon cycle models can improve predictions of carbon fluxes from wood decomposition.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover

Dorothy Koch

(PI Contact)
Chonggang Xu, LANL, cxu@lanl.gov

The first author Zhenhong Hu was also supported by China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2017M622709) and Foundation for High Level Talents in Higher Education of Guangdong, China (2014KZDXM018), which supported his visit to LANL. Sean T. Michaletz; and Daniel J. Johnson were supported by Director's Fellowships from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Nate McDowell and Chonggang Xu were supported by NGEE-Tropics and SUMO support from the Department of Energy, Office of Science. 

Hu Z., S.T. Michaletz, DJ Johnson, N.G. McDowell, Z. Huang, X. Zhou, C. Hu.  “Traits drive global wood decomposition rates more than climate.” Global Change Biol. 24(11), 5259-5269 (2018).[DOI:10.1111/gcb.14357]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling
  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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