, Volume 131, Issue 3, pp 267–280 | Cite as

Soil organic matter dynamics after afforestation of mountain grasslands in both a Mediterranean and a temperate climate

  • Carlos Ortiz
  • Eduardo Vázquez
  • Agustín Rubio
  • Marta Benito
  • Andreas Schindlbacher
  • Robert Jandl
  • Klaus Butterbach-Bahl
  • Eugenio Díaz-Pinés


We studied the effect of mountain grassland afforestation with conifer trees (Pinus sylvestris, Picea abies and Pinus cembra) on soil organic matter (SOM) cycling and carbon (C) isotopic composition in two contrasting climate areas using a regional approach. Seventeen paired sites (each containing at least 40 years prior afforested and grassland plots) were investigated in the mountains of Central Spain and Western Austria. Topsoil CO2 effluxes were monitored under standardized conditions for six months as a proxy for soil organic carbon (SOC) mineralisation. The bulk C and nitrogen (N) concentrations and their isotopic composition in the soil and in the plants were assessed. The soil C:N ratio was consistently greater after afforestation in both regions, which in Spain was caused by a significant decrease in N concentration. No consistent effect was found on mineralisation rates due to vegetation change. Afforestation produced a more consistent soil 13C enrichment in the Spanish than in the Austrian sites. Our work strongly suggests that increasing altitude in Mediterranean mountain grasslands alleviates water limitation, favouring both plant growth and SOM decomposition, and ultimately accelerating C cycling. In contrast, temperate grassland areas at high altitudes were associated with severe temperature limitations, which constrained SOM transformation processes. In spite of the impact of afforestation on soil biogeochemical processes, C concentrations were marginally affected. We therefore conclude that grassland conversion to coniferous forests does not enhanced C sequestration in the mineral soil, for at least 40 years after land-use change.


Afforestation Carbon cycling Soil incubation Coniferous Grassland Mountain regions 



This study was partially funded by a grant from the government of the Madrid Region (ref. REMEDINAL3-CM MAE-2719). The Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport funded CO’s PhD studies thorough the FPU programme. We thank the Centre for Stable Isotopes at Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Dr Gustavo Saiz for laboratory support; Bernadette Sotier and Klaus Suntinger for their generous help with soil sampling in the Austrian Alps; Dr Hubert Hasenauer and the Department of Soil Science at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna for providing Austrian meteorological data; Ms Pru Brooke-Turner for her linguistic assistance; and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 65 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (TIFF 1173 kb)
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Supplementary material 3 (TIFF 42464 kb)


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Agricultural ProductionTechnical University of MadridMadridSpain
  2. 2.Department of Natural Systems and ResourcesTechnical University of MadridMadridSpain
  3. 3.Department of Forest Ecology and Soils, Federal Research and Training Centre for ForestsNatural Hazards and Landscape - BFWViennaAustria
  4. 4.Institute of Meteorology and Climate ResearchKarlsruhe Institute of TechnologyGarmisch-PartenkirchenGermany

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