The biogeochemistry of carbon at Hubbard Brook

T. J. Fahey, T. G. Siccama, C. T. Driscoll, G. E. Likens, J. Campbell, C. E. Johnson, J. J. Battles, J. D. Aber, J. J. Cole, M. C. Fisk, P. M. Groffman, S. P. Hamburg, R. T. Holmes, P. A. Schwarz, R. D. Yanai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

231 Scopus citations


The biogeochemical behavior of carbon in the forested watersheds of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBEF) was analyzed in long-term studies. The largest pools of C in the reference watershed (W6) reside in mineral soil organic matter (43% of total ecosystem C) and living biomass (40.5%), with the remainder in surface detritus (14.5%). Repeated sampling indicated that none of these pools was changing significantly in the late-1990s, although high spatial variability precluded the detection of small changes in the soil organic matter pools, which are large; hence, net ecosystem productivity (NEP) in this 2nd growth forest was near zero (± about 20 g C/m2-yr) and probably similar in magnitude to fluvial export of organic C. Aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) of the forest declined by 24% between the late-1950s (462 g C/m2-yr) and the late-1990s (354 g C/m2-yr), illustrating age-related decline in forest NPP, effects of multiple stresses and unusual tree mortality, or both. Application of the simulation model PnET-II predicted 14% higher ANPP than was observed for 1996-1997, probably reflecting some unknown stresses. Fine litterfall flux (171 g C/m2-yr) has not changed much since the late-1960s. Because of high annual variation, C flux in woody litterfall (including tree mortality) was not tightly constrained but averaged about 90 g C/m2-yr. Carbon flux to soil organic matter in root turnover (128 g C/m2-yr) was only about half as large as aboveground detritus. Balancing the soil C budget requires that large amounts of C (80 g C/m2-yr) were transported from roots to rhizosphere carbon flux. Total soil respiration (TSR) ranged from 540 to 800 g C/m2-yr across eight stands and decreased with increasing elevation within the northern hardwood forest near W6. The watershed-wide TSR was estimated as 660 g C/m 2-yr. Empirical measurements indicated that 58% of TSR occurred in the surface organic horizons and that root respiration comprised about 40% of TSR, most of the rest being microbial. Carbon flux directly associated with other heterotrophs in the HBEF was minor; for example, we estimated respiration of soil microarthropods, rodents, birds and moose at about 3, 5, 1 and 0.8 g C/m2-yr, respectively, or in total less than 2% of NPP. Hence, the effects of other heterotrophs on C flux were primarily indirect, with the exception of occasional irruptions of folivorous insects. Hydrologic fluxes of C were significant in the watershed C budget, especially in comparison with NEP. Although atmospheric inputs (1.7 g C/m2-yr) and streamflow outputs (2.7 g C/m2-yr) were small, larger quantities of C were transported within the ecosystem and a more substantial fraction of dissolved C was transported from the soil as inorganic C and evaded from the stream as CO 2 (4.0 g C/m2-yr). Carbon pools and fluxes change rapidly in response to catastrophic disturbances such as forest harvest or major windthrow events. These changes are dominated by living vegetation and dead wood pools, including roots. If biomass removal does not accompany large-scale disturbance, the ecosystem is a large net source of C to the atmosphere (500-1200 g C/m2-yr) for about a decade following disturbance and becomes a net sink about 15-20 years after disturbance; it remains a net sink of about 200-300 g C/m2-yr for about 40 years before rapidly approaching steady state. Shifts in NPP and NEP associated with common small-scale or diffuse forest disturbances (e.g., forest declines, pathogen irruptions, ice storms) are brief and much less dramatic. Spatial and temporal patterns in C pools and fluxes in the mature forest at the HBEF reflect variation in environmental factors. Temperature and growing-season length undoubtedly constrain C fluxes at the HBEF; however, temperature effects on leaf respiration may largely offset the effects of growing season length on photosynthesis. Occasional severe droughts also affect C flux by reducing both photosynthesis and soil respiration. In younger stands nutrient availability strongly limits NPP, but the role of soil nutrient availability in limiting C flux in the mature forest is not known. A portion of the elevational variation of ANPP within the HBEF probably is associated with soil resource limitation; moreover, sites on more fertile soils exhibit 20-25% higher biomass and ANPP than the forest-wide average. Several prominent biotic influences on C pools and fluxes also are clear. Biomass and NPP of both the young and mature forest depend upon tree species composition as well as environment. Similarly, litter decay differs among tree species and forest types, and forest floor C accumulation is twice as great in the spruce-fir-birch forests at higher elevations than in the northern hardwood forests, partly because of inherently slow litter decay and partly because of cold temperatures. This contributes to spatial patterns in soil solution and streamwater dissolved organic carbon across the Hubbard Brook Valley. Wood decay varies markedly both among species and within species because of biochemical differences and probably differences in the decay fungi colonizing wood. Although C biogeochemistry at the HBEF is representative of mountainous terrain in the region, other sites will depart from the patterns described at the HBEF, due to differences in site history, especially agricultural use and fires during earlier logging periods. Our understanding of the C cycle in northern hardwood forests is most limited in the area of soil pool size changes, woody litter deposition and rhizosphere C flux processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)109-176
Number of pages68
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 2005


  • Forest ecosystem
  • Heterotrophic respiration
  • Net ecosystem exchange
  • Primary productivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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