Climate models predict precipitation changes for much of the humid tropics, yet few studies have investigated the potential consequences of drought on soil carbon (C) cycling in this important biome. In wet tropical forests, drought could stimulate soil respiration via overall reductions in soil anoxia, but previous research suggests that litter decomposition is positively correlated with high rainfall fluxes that move large quantities of dissolved organic matter (DOM) from the litter layer to the soil surface. Thus, reduced rainfall could also limit C delivery to the soil surface, reducing respiration rates. We conducted a throughfall manipulation experiment to investigate how 25% and 50% reductions in rainfall altered both C movement into soils and the effects of those DOM fluxes on soil respiration rates. In response to the experimental drought, soil respiration rates increased in both the -25% and -50% treatments. Throughfall fluxes were reduced by 26% and 55% in the -25% and -50% treatments, respectively. However, total DOM fluxes leached from the litter did not vary between treatments, because the concentrations of leached DOM reaching the soil surface increased in response to the simulated drought. Annual DOM concentrations averaged 7.7 ± 0.8, 11.2 ± 0.9, and 15.8 ± 1.2 mg C/L in the control, -25%, and -50% plots, respectively, and DOM concentrations were positively correlated with soil respiration rates. A laboratory incubation experiment confirmed the potential importance of DOM concentration on soil respiration rates, suggesting that this mechanism could contribute to the increase in CO2 fluxes observed in the reduced rainfall plots. Across all plots, the data suggested that soil CO2 fluxes were partially regulated by the magnitude and concentration of soluble C delivered to the soil, but also by soil moisture and soil oxygen availability. Together, our data suggest that declines in precipitation in tropical rain forests could drive higher CO2 fluxes to the atmosphere both via increased soil O2 availability and through responses to elevated DOM concentrations.
Additional publication details
Experimental drought in a tropical rain forest increases soil carbon dioxide losses to the atmosphere