Technical Note: Linking climate change and downed woody debris decomposition across forests of the eastern United States
Forest ecosystems play a critical role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Long-term forest carbon (C) storage is determined by the balance between C fixation into biomass through photosynthesis and C release via decomposition and combustion. Relative to C fixation in biomass, much less is known about C depletion through decomposition of woody debris, particularly under a changing climate. It is assumed that the increased temperatures and longer growing seasons associated with projected climate change will increase the decomposition rates (i.e., more rapid C cycling) of downed woody debris (DWD); however, the magnitude of this increase has not been previously addressed. Using DWD measurements collected from a national forest inventory of the eastern United States, we show that the residence time of DWD may decrease (i.e., more rapid decomposition) by as much as 13% over the next 200 years depending on various future climate change scenarios and forest types. Although existing dynamic global vegetation models account for the decomposition process, they typically do not include the effect of a changing climate on DWD decomposition rates. We expect that an increased understanding of decomposition rates, as presented in this current work, will be needed to adequately quantify the fate of woody detritus in future forests. Furthermore, we hope these results will lead to improved models that incorporate climate change scenarios for depicting future dead wood dynamics, in addition to a traditional emphasis on live tree demographics.