Temporal changes in C and N stocks of restored prairie: implications for C sequestration strategies

R Matamala, J D Jastrow, R M Miller, C T Garten
Ecological Applications 2008, 18 (6): 1470-88
The recovery of ecosystem C and N dynamics after disturbance can be a slow process. Chronosequence approaches offer unique opportunities to use space-for-time substitution to quantify the recovery of ecosystem C and N stocks and estimate the potential of restoration practices for C sequestration. We studied the distribution of C and N stocks in two chronosequences that included long-term cultivated lands, 3- to 26-year-old prairie restorations, and remnant prairie on two related soil series. Results from the two chronosequences did not vary significantly and were combined. Based on modeling predictions, the recovery rates of different ecosystem components varied greatly. Overall, C stocks recovered faster than N stocks, but both C and N stocks recovered more rapidly for aboveground vegetation than for any other ecosystem component. Aboveground C and N reached 95% of remnant levels in only 13 years and 21 years, respectively, after planting to native vegetation. Belowground plant C and N recovered several decades later, while microbial biomass C, soil organic C (SOC), and total soil N recovered on a century timescale. In the cultivated fields, SOC concentrations were depleted within the surface 25 cm, coinciding with the depth of plowing, but cultivation apparently led to redistribution of soil C, increasing SOC stocks deeper in the soil profile. The restoration of prairie vegetation was effective at rebuilding soil organic matter (SOM) in the surface soil. Accrual rates were maintained at 43 g C x m(-2) x yr(-1) and 3 g N x m(-2) x yr(-1) in the surface 0.16 Mg/m2 soil mass during the first 26 years of restoration and were predicted to reach 50% of their storage potential (3500 g C/m2) in the first 100 years. We conclude that restoration of tallgrass prairie vegetation can restore SOM lost through cultivation and has the potential to sequester relatively large amounts of SOC over a sustained period of time. Whether restored prairies can retain the C apparently transferred to the subsoil by cultivation practices remains to be seen.

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