Soil Carbon Dynamics Following Switchgrass Establishment for Bioenergy Production in Southeastern Ontario
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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a perennial C4 grass species, has the capacity to not only improve the quality of the soil in which it grows but also promote soil carbon storage to offset rising atmospheric CO2. This research investigated soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics beneath switchgrass using natural abundance 13C and soil carbon fractionation following the establishment of this crop in a native and predominantly C3 plant region in southeastern Ontario. I investigated SOC dynamics by sampling adjacent commercial switchgrass fields and appropriate paired control fields at sites where the time since switchgrass establishment varied from 4-11 years. SOC and natural 13C abundance were measured in paired fields to assess management-induced changes in the quantity, source, and turnover time of soil carbon. To better elucidate carbon cycling dynamics over a relatively short time since switchgrass establishment, multiple soil fractionation techniques were applied to better understand carbon dynamics of soil organic matter with various mean residence times. Establishment of switchgrass results in marginal increases in SOC, primarily at sites where intensive soil management (i.e. tillage) practices preceded switchgrass establishment. Changes were observed in some of the more labile SOC pools, as well as in the δ13C values of the bulk soil and soil carbon fractions, indicating that growing switchgrass was causing the incorporation of switchgrass-derived carbon into the soil. Even resistant SOC pools, with turnover times of over 100 years, incorporated significant quantities of switchgrass carbon in 11 years. Annual increases in SOC, however, were less than values reported elsewhere. The potential for soil carbon storage exists, likely due to longer mean residence times of the carbon in soils beneath switchgrass compared with other cultivation systems. Changes in SOC following switchgrass establishment related strongly to the amount of root biomass, time since establishment and prior soil management practices. The decomposition rates derived in this research should be integrated into soil carbon modeling applications intended to support the emergence of switchgrass in southeastern Ontario. The results of my research can advance soil carbon models and be used to make regional assessment of the potential impact of growing switchgrass for bioenergy in southeastern Ontario.