Precipitation intensity is the primary driver of moss crust-derived CO2 exchange: Implications for soil C balance in a temperate desert of northwestern China

Lin Wu, Yuanming Zhang*, Jing Zhang, Alison Downing

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    26 Citations (Scopus)


    Precipitation is the major driver of ecosystem functions and processes in semiarid and arid regions. Although re-wetting pulses generate a significant portion of the total annual CO2 exchange between atmosphere and soil, there has been little recognition of the importance of photosynthetic and respiratory activities of biological soil crusts (biocrusts) in desert soil CO2 exchange. In this study in the Gurbantunggut Desert of northwestern China, our objective was to determine the extent to which precipitation intensity could influence soil CO2 exchange of the desert ecosystem and the role played by moss crust in soil C balance during this process. In field experiments, net CO2 exchange (NCE) was measured in moss crusted soil and in bareland once a month from March to November in 2013. In laboratory experiments, simulated precipitation treatments (0mm, 2mm, 5mm, 10mm and 15mm) were applied to moss crust, and NCE of moss crusted soil and its three flux components (crust photosynthesis, crust respiration, and subsoil respiration) were measured. Temporal variation of NCE varied with soil moisture and temperature. Soil moisture alone can explain 71-74% of variation in NCE. Soil type (moss crusted soil or bareland) also had a significant effect on NCE (P<0.01), but this was dependent on soil moisture which is directly linked to precipitation pulse. The response of NCE to precipitation pulse in moss crust differed significantly from that of bareland. After a 2mm precipitation pulse, the crust gross photosynthetic rate (GPc) was lower than the crust respiration rate (Rc), resulting in C efflux. When precipitation intensity was equal to or greater than 5mm, GPc fully offset total respiration, resulting in an increase in C uptake. C gain was positively correlated with intensity of precipitation pulse. Regardless of different precipitation intensities, Rc was significantly higher than that of subsoil respiration. Thus, precipitation primarily drives moss crust-derived CO2 exchange, which significantly influences the balance of soil-level CO2 exchange in desert ecosystems. Overall, this study demonstrates that in desert ecosystems, the regulation of atmospheric-soil C balance by moss crusts depends on the intensity of precipitation.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)27-34
    Number of pages8
    JournalEuropean Journal of Soil Biology
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2015


    • Precipitation
    • Soil C exchange
    • Biological soil crust
    • C uptake
    • Arid regions


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