Labile carbon limits late winter microbial activity near Arctic treeline

Nat Commun. 2020 Aug 12;11(1):4024. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-17790-5.


Soil microbial communities remain active during much of the Arctic winter, despite deeply frozen soils. Overwinter microbial activity affects the global carbon (C) budget, nutrient cycling, and vegetation composition. Microbial respiration is highly temperature sensitive in frozen soils, as liquid water and solute availability decrease rapidly with declining temperature. Climate warming and changes in snowpack are leading to warmer Arctic winter soils. Warmer winter soils are thought to yield greater microbial respiration of available C, greater overwinter CO2 efflux and greater nutrient availability to plants at thaw. Using field and laboratory observations and experiments, we demonstrate that persistently warm winter soils can lead to labile C starvation and reduced microbial respiration, despite the high C content of most Arctic soils. If winter soils continue to warm, microbial C limitation will reduce expected CO2 emissions and alter soil nutrient cycling, if not countered by greater labile C inputs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alaska
  • Arctic Regions
  • Atmosphere
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Carbon*
  • Climate Change
  • Ecosystem
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Microbiota / physiology*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Plants
  • Seasons*
  • Soil / chemistry*
  • Soil Microbiology*
  • Temperature
  • Trees / microbiology*


  • Soil
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Carbon
  • Glucose