Climate change scenarios predict increases in temperature, changes in precipitation patterns, and longer drought periods in most semi-arid regions of the world. Ecosystems in these regions are prone to land degradation, which may be aggravated by climate change. Soil respiration is one of the main processes responsible for organic carbon losses from arid and semi-arid ecosystems. We measured soil respiration over one year in two steppe ecosystems having different degrees of land degradation under three ground-covers: with vegetation, bare soil, and an intermediate situation between plants and bare soil.
The largest differences in soil respiration rates between the sites were observed in spring, coinciding with the highest level of plant activity. The degraded site had drier and hotter soils with less soil water availability and a longer drought period. As a result, vegetation on the degraded site did not respond to spring rainfall events. Soil respiration showed a strong seasonal variability, with average annual rates of 1.1 and 0.8 μmol CO2 m−2 s−1 in the natural and degraded sites, respectively. We did not observe significant differences in soil respiration rates associated with ground-cover i.e., the temporal variation was much larger than the spatial variation. At both sites, soil moisture was the controlling driver of soil respiration for most of the year, when temperatures were above 20 °C and constrained the response to temperature for the few months when the temperature was below 20 °C. An empirical model based on soil temperature and soil moisture explained 90% and 72% of the seasonal variability of soil respiration on the natural and degraded sites, respectively. For the first time, this study suggests that land degradation may alter the carbon balance of these ecosystems through changes in the temporal dynamics of soil respiration and plant productivity, which have important negative consequences for ecosystem functioning and sustainability.
Keywords: Climate change, Fine roots, Modelling, Desertification, Soil CO2 efflux, Arid ecosystems, Mediterranean grasslands, Soil temperature, Soil moisture, Vegetation index