Forest ecosystems are removing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Both abiotic resource availability and biotic interactions during forest succession affect C accumulation rates and maximum C stocks. However, the timing and controls on the peak and decline in C accumulation rates as stands age, trees increase in size, and canopy gaps become prevalent are not well-understood. Our study examines measured change in live and dead woody C pools from 8767 inventory plots on 9.1 million ha of Pacific Northwest National Forest lands to determine how the balance of tree growth, mortality, and dead wood decomposition varied by stand age, plant community type, and site productivity; and to compare the contribution of different tree sizes to C accumulation. Maximum non-mineral soil C for old-growth stands varied significantly by productivity class within plant community types, but on average stands accumulated 75% of maximum stocks by age 127 ± 35 yr. We did not see a decline in net primary production of wood (NPPw) with age in moderate and low-productivity classes, but found a 33% reduction in high-productivity classes. Mortality increased with stand age such that net change in live tree biomass, and change in total woody C, was not significantly different from zero in old-growth stands over age 400 (0.15 ± 0.64 Mg C·ha−1·yr−1 for woody C). However, significant though modest C accumulation was found in forests 200–400 yr old (0.34–0.70 Mg C·ha−1·yr−1, depending on age class). Mortality of trees >100 cm diameter exceeded or equaled NPPw, but trees were growing into the larger sizes at a high-enough rate that a net increase in large tree C was seen across the region. Although large trees accumulated C at a faster rate than small trees on an individual basis, their contribution to C accumulation rates was smaller on an area basis, and their importance relative to small trees declined in older stands compared to younger stands. In contrast to recent syntheses, our results suggest that old-growth and large trees are important C stocks, but they play a minor role in additional C accumulation.
Gray, Andrew N.; Whittier, Thomas R.; Harmon, Mark E. 2016. Carbon stocks and accumulation rates in Pacific Northwest forests: role of stand age, plant community, and productivity. Ecosphere 7(1): e01224.