Arctic tundra ecosystems contain 14% of the global soil carbon (C) store which is becoming vulnerable to decomposition. Arctic soil organic matter (SOM) contains large amounts of old, recalcitrant, high molecular weight (MW) C compounds which are protected from decomposition whilst soils remain frozen. Climatic change alters soil temperature and water regimes in the Arctic, however, the impact of these changes on C decomposition and storage is poorly understood.
We investigated vegetation emergence, microbial dynamics and nutrient fluxes in response to snow melt on the high Arctic Svalbard archipelago using field and laboratory studies. Using bacterial and archaeal genetic material (16S rRNA) and ammonia-oxidising genes, microbial communities were quantified in transects across the active snow melt front. The effects of soil temperature and water content on SOM decomposition rates were measured using 14C-labelled low and high MW compounds.
Vegetation and below-ground microbial communities, in the field, responded rapidly with peaks in nutrient availability and soil respiration observed within 72 h of snowmelt. Temperature strongly drives early growing season C dynamics in the Arctic. We suggest the nutrient peaks following snowmelt, coupled with higher levels of DNA in the subniveal zone are due to the decomposition of bacteria and archaea from previous years.
We show, in the laboratory, when soils thaw, mineralisation of recalcitrant C (high MW) compounds was sensitive to soil water but not to increasing temperatures. In contrast, low MW compounds exhibited sensitivity to both temperature and soil water. We suggest that if future soil water content increases under climate change, high MW compounds could become more susceptible to decomposition, releasing more C to the atmosphere.