Webs of influence: Investigating the effects of the forest mycorrhizosphere on soil carbon storage in a changing world
Anthropogenic climate change is broadly accepted to be the biggest threat to ecosystems in the 21st century, with the most rapid change occurring in Arctic regions. It is necessary to understand the consequences of on-going warming, such as changing vegetation and northward advance of Arctic treelines, as well as examining the robustness of proposed mitigation strategies, such as intensified tree planting. Using field based approaches in soil carbon rich sub-Arctic and high latitude boreal regions, I found that Betula pubescens roots and associated mycorrhizal fungi extend 3-4.5 m away from trees, thereby covering open forest gaps, possibly creating a â€˜wood-wide-webâ€™. However, I found no evidence of common mycelial networks between trees or the understorey in these forests. My findings indicate consistent high production of roots and mycorrhizas throughout the forest floor, coupled with declining soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks with increasing distance from trees. In the Scottish uplands, with comparable tree and understorey species, I found that planting B. pubescens onto heather moorland leads to a 58 and 50% loss of SOC stocks 12 and 39 years after planting, resulting in no net gain in ecosystem C. Long term tree planting experiments provide empirical evidence for the consequences of tree planting schemes as a climate change mitigation strategy and the potential effects of warming-driven encroachment of Arctic treeline forests onto globally important ericaceous soil carbon stores. Combined, my results show how B. pubescens mycorrhizospheres – their roots and associated mycorrhizas – effectively explore throughout the forest floor and shape the spatial dynamics and depletion of soil carbon stocks in Arctic and boreal regions most vulnerable to climate change. Furthermore, this work suggests that, although urgent action on climate change is needed, awareness of the ecological context is crucial if planting trees is to be a robust strategy for climate change mitigation.