Rainfall intensification increases the contribution of rewetting pulses to soil heterotrophic respiration

Stefano Manzoni, Arjun Chakrawal, Thomas Fischer, Joshua P. Schimel, Amilcare Porporato, Giulia Vico

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Soil drying and wetting cycles promote carbon (C) release through large heterotrophic respiration pulses at rewetting, known as the "Birch"effect. Empirical evidence shows that drier conditions before rewetting and larger changes in soil moisture at rewetting cause larger respiration pulses. Because soil moisture varies in response to rainfall, these respiration pulses also depend on the random timing and intensity of precipitation. In addition to rewetting pulses, heterotrophic respiration continues during soil drying, eventually ceasing when soils are too dry to sustain microbial activity. The importance of respiration pulses in contributing to the overall soil heterotrophic respiration flux has been demonstrated empirically, but no theoretical investigation has so far evaluated how the relative contribution of these pulses may change along climatic gradients or as precipitation regimes shift in a given location. To fill this gap, we start by assuming that heterotrophic respiration rates during soil drying and pulses at rewetting can be treated as random variables dependent on soil moisture fluctuations, and we develop a stochastic model for soil heterotrophic respiration rates that analytically links the statistical properties of respiration to those of precipitation. Model results show that both the mean rewetting pulse respiration and the mean respiration during drying increase with increasing mean precipitation. However, the contribution of respiration pulses to the total heterotrophic respiration increases with decreasing precipitation frequency and to a lesser degree with decreasing precipitation depth, leading to an overall higher contribution of respiration pulses under future more intermittent and intense precipitation. Specifically, higher rainfall intermittency at constant total rainfall can increase the contribution of respiration pulses up to <span class 10% or 20% of the total heterotrophic respiration in mineral and organic soils, respectively. Moreover, the variability of both components of soil heterotrophic respiration is also predicted to increase under these conditions. Therefore, with future more intermittent precipitation, respiration pulses and the associated nutrient release will intensify and become more variable, contributing more to soil biogeochemical cycling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4007-4023
Number of pages17
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 10 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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