Dissecting the effects of diameter on wood decay emphasizes the importance of cross-stem conductivity in Fraxinus americana

Brad Oberle*, Kristofer R. Covey, Kevin M. Dunham, Edgar J. Hernandez, Maranda L. Walton, Darcy F. Young, Amy E. Zanne

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Pest outbreaks are driving tree dieback and major influxes of deadwood into forest ecosystems. Understanding how pulses of deadwood impact the climate system requires understanding which factors influence greenhouse gas production during wood decay. Recent analyses identify stem diameter as an important control, but report effects that vary in magnitude and direction. This complexity may reflect interacting effects of soil contact, geometry and variable tissue properties. To dissect these effects, we implemented a three-way factorial experiment in Fraxinus americana, (white ash), an iconic North American species threatened by an invasive beetle. Soil contact accelerated decay rates by an order of magnitude with an effect that varied with stem diameter, not bark presence. After experimentally controlling surface area-to-volume ratio, half-buried wide stems decayed more slowly than half-buried narrow stems but more quickly than the aggregate decay rate of buried and suspended stems. These results closely matched variation in moisture content within and among samples, suggesting that limited vertical conduction of soil moisture through deadwood mediates the effect of stem diameter on wood decay. Soil contact also influenced greenhouse gas concentrations reinforcing recent evidence that deadwood acts as a source for CO2 and CH4 while acting as a sink for N2O. Our results suggest that managing tree species affected by pest outbreaks, including F. americana, for biomass salvage and greenhouse gas mitigation requires understanding traits that mediate wood permeability and diffusivity to soil moisture and greenhouse gases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85–97
Number of pages13
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • carbon dioxide
  • forest carbon
  • emerald ash borer
  • methane
  • nitrous oxide
  • wood decay


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