Coarse woody debris decomposition assessment tool: Model development and sensitivity analysis

PLoS One. 2021 Jun 4;16(6):e0251893. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0251893. eCollection 2021.


Coarse woody debris (CWD) is an important component in forests, hosting a variety of organisms that have critical roles in nutrient cycling and carbon (C) storage. We developed a process-based model using literature, field observations, and expert knowledge to assess woody debris decomposition in forests and the movement of wood C into the soil and atmosphere. The sensitivity analysis was conducted against the primary ecological drivers (wood properties and ambient conditions) used as model inputs. The analysis used eighty-nine climate datasets from North America, from tropical (14.2° N) to boreal (65.0° N) zones, with large ranges in annual mean temperature (26.5°C in tropical to -11.8°C in boreal), annual precipitation (6,143 to 181 mm), annual snowfall (0 to 612 kg m-2), and altitude (3 to 2,824 m above mean see level). The sensitivity analysis showed that CWD decomposition was strongly affected by climate, geographical location and altitude, which together regulate the activity of both microbial and invertebrate wood-decomposers. CWD decomposition rate increased with increments in temperature and precipitation, but decreased with increases in latitude and altitude. CWD decomposition was also sensitive to wood size, density, position (standing vs downed), and tree species. The sensitivity analysis showed that fungi are the most important decomposers of woody debris, accounting for over 50% mass loss in nearly all climatic zones in North America. The model includes invertebrate decomposers, focusing mostly on termites, which can have an important role in CWD decomposition in tropical and some subtropical regions. The role of termites in woody debris decomposition varied widely, between 0 and 40%, from temperate areas to tropical regions. Woody debris decomposition rates simulated for eighty-nine locations in North America were within the published range of woody debris decomposition rates for regions in northern hemisphere from 1.6° N to 68.3° N and in Australia.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Australia
  • Carbon / chemistry
  • Climate
  • Forests
  • Fungi / chemistry
  • Invertebrates / chemistry
  • North America
  • Soil / chemistry
  • Temperature
  • Trees / chemistry
  • Wood / chemistry*


  • Soil
  • Carbon

Grant support

Support of the FWDE and the model development has been provided by U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE, USA), grant number DE-SC0016235 to CCT and the National Science Foundation (NSF, USA), grant number DEB 1754603 to AJB and grant number DEB 1754616 to JSS. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.