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Reading tea leaves worldwide: Decoupled drivers of initial litter decomposition mass-loss rate and stabilization

New publication by Sarneel JM, Hefting MM, Sandén T, van den Hoogen J, Routh D, Adhikari BS et al.


The breakdown of plant material fuels soil functioning and biodiversity. Currently, process understanding of global decomposition patterns and the drivers of such patterns are hampered by the lack of coherent large-scale datasets. We buried 36,000 individual litterbags (tea bags) worldwide and found an overall negative correlation between initial mass-loss rates and stabilization factors of plant-derived carbon, using the Tea Bag Index (TBI). The stabilization factor quantifies the degree to which easy-to-degrade components accumulate during early-stage decomposition (e.g. by environmental limitations). However, agriculture and an interaction between moisture and temperature led to a decoupling between initial mass-loss rates and stabilization, notably in colder locations. Using TBI improved mass-loss estimates of natural litter compared to models that ignored stabilization. Ignoring the transformation of dead plant material to more recalcitrant substances during early-stage decomposition, and the environmental control of this transformation, could overestimate carbon losses during early decomposition in carbon cycle models.