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Rotting leaf litter study could lead to more accurate climate models

Berkeley -- Over the past decade, in numerous field sites throughout the world, mesh bags of leaf and root litter sat exposed to the elements, day and night, throughout the four seasons, gradually rotting away.

Now, those bags of decomposing organic matter have allowed a research team led by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and Colorado State University to produce an elegant and simple set of equations to calculate the nitrogen released into the soil during decomposition, which in turn could significantly improve the accuracy of global climate change models.

The researchers found that the dominant drivers of nitrogen release were the initial concentration of nitrogen and the remaining mass of the leaf and root litter. The equations and how the researchers developed them are described in the Jan. 19 issue of the journal Science.

"In the world of complex biogeochemistry, we've discovered that this fundamental process of nutrient cycling by plants and microbes turns out to be relatively straightforward," said Whendee Silver, professor of ecosystem sciences at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and co-lead author of the study. "Whether it's hot or cold, wet or dry, the equations work. This study highlights the fact that, for microbes, there is a fundamental physiological constraint controlling nitrogen release during decomposition. It took a large-scale, long term study like this to help us see how simple these processes can be."

The project, known as the Long-Term Inter-site Decomposition Experiment, involved 21 field sites. The sites represent seven biomes, from the tundra to tropical forests, encompassing the array of climatic conditions around the world. Many of the sites were part of the Long Term Ecological Research Network sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Each mesh bag included leaf or root litter, such as pine needles, wheat straw, sugar maple leaves or grass roots. The sam
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