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Journal of Arid Land  2020, Vol. 12 Issue (5): 806-818    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-020-0074-x
Research article     
Degradation leads to dramatic decrease in topsoil but not subsoil root biomass in an alpine meadow on the Tibetan Plateau, China
ZHANG Zhenchao1,2, LIU Miao1,3, SUN Jian1,*(), WEI Tianxing4
1Synthesis Research Centre of Chinese Ecosystem Research Network, Key Laboratory of Ecosystem Network Observation and Modelling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
2State Key Laboratory of Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming on the Loess Plateau, Institute of Soil and Water Conservation, Northwest A&F University, Yangling 712100, China
3Arid Land Research Center, Tottori University, Tottori 6800001, Japan
4School of Soil and Water Conservation, Beijing Forestry University, Beijing 100083, China
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Understanding the effects of degradation on belowground biomass (BGB) is essential for assessment of carbon budget of the alpine meadow ecosystem on the Tibetan Plateau, China. This ecosystem has been undergoing serious degradation owing to climate change and anthropogenic activities. This study examined the response of the vertical distribution of plant BGB to degradation and explored the underlying mechanisms in an alpine meadow on the Tibetan Plateau. A field survey was conducted in an alpine meadow with seven sequential degrees of degradation in the Zoige Plateau on the Tibetan Plateau during the peak growing season of 2018. We measured aboveground biomass (AGB), BGB, soil water content (SWC), soil bulk density (SBD), soil compaction (SCOM), soil organic carbon (SOC), soil total nitrogen (STN), soil total phosphorus (STP), soil available nitrogen (SAN), and soil available phosphorus (STP) in the 0-30 cm soil layers. Our results show that degradation dramatically decreased the BGB in the 0-10 cm soil layer (BGB0-10) but slightly increased the subsoil BGB. The main reason may be that the physical-chemical properties of surface soil were more sensitive to degradation than those of subsoil, as indicated by the remarked positive associations of the trade-off value of BGB0-10 with SWC, SCOM, SOC, STN, SAN, and STP, as well as the negative correlation between the trade-off value of BGB0-10 and SBD in the soil layer of 0-10 cm. In addition, an increase in the proportion of forbs with increasing degradation degree directly affected the BGB vertical distribution. The findings suggest that the decrease in the trade-off value of BGB0-10 in response to degradation might be an adaptive strategy for the degradation-induced drought and infertile soil conditions. This study can provide theoretical support for assessing the effects of degradation on the carbon budget and sustainable development in the alpine meadow ecosystem on the Tibetan Plateau as well as other similar ecosystems in the world.

Key wordsbelowground biomass      soil properties      plant community structure      degradation      alpine meadow      Tibetan Plateau     
Received: 12 March 2020      Published: 10 September 2020
Corresponding Authors: Jian SUN     E-mail:
About author: *Corresponding author: SUN Jian (E-mail:
Cite this article:

ZHANG Zhenchao, LIU Miao, SUN Jian, WEI Tianxing. Degradation leads to dramatic decrease in topsoil but not subsoil root biomass in an alpine meadow on the Tibetan Plateau, China. Journal of Arid Land, 2020, 12(5): 806-818.

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Fig. 1 Location of sampling site at the Zoige Plateau on the Tibetan Plateau of China (a), photograph showing the landscape of sampling site (b), and schematic illustration of experimental design (c)
Coordinates Altitude (m) Main species Coverage (%)
1st 33°13′37.53′′N
3678 Stipa capillata, Carex tristachya 89.00±5.13
2nd 33°13′37.44′′N
3695 Stipa capillata, Anaphalis sinica 78.00±3.26
3rd 33°13′37.11′′N
3702 Stipa capillata, Carex tristachya 67.00±4.15
4th 33°13′36.93′′N
3721 Carex tristachya, Stipa capillata 50.00±4.71
5th 33°13′37.84′′N
3725 Carex tristachya, Artemisia desertorum 38.00±3.52
6th 33°13′37.62′′N
3736 Artemisia desertorum, Agrostis matsumurae 29.00±2.20
7th 33°13′37.39′′N
3740 Artemisia desertorum, Oxytropis kansuensis 17.00±2.44
Table 1 Information on the seven degradation gradients
Fig. 2 Illustration of trade-offs among objective belowground biomass (BGB) values in the three soil layers (0-10, 10-20, and 20-30 cm). The zero trade-off line represents that the benefits of BGB in each layer are equal. BGB0-10, BGB10-20, and BGB20-30 represent the BGB in the 0-10, 10-20, and 20-30 cm soil layers, respectively.
Table 2 Soil properties along the seven degradation gradients in the study site
Fig. 3 Changes in aboveground biomass (AGB) of graminoids and forbs along the seven degradation gradients. Information on the seven degradation gradients is shown in Table 1.
Fig. 4 Changes of belowground biomass (BGB) in the three soil layers (0-10, 10-20, and 20-30 cm) along the seven degradation gradients
Fig. 5 Changes in trade-off values of BGB in the three soil layers (0-10, 10-20, and 20-30 cm) along the seven degradation gradients. The gray area represents 95% confidence intervals.
Fig. 6 Correlations among the trade-off value of BGB in the 0-10 cm soil layer (BGB0-10), topsoil physical-chemical properties, and plant community structure. SBD, soil bulk density; SAP, soil available phosphorus; SCOM, soil compaction; SWC, soil water content; STP, soil total phosphorus; SOC, soil organic carbon; STN, soil total nitrogen; AGB(G/F), the ratio of AGB of graminoids to that of forbs; SAN, soil available nitrogen. The color depth represents correlated strength, that is, a deep color suggests a strong correlation. Blue and red represent positive and negative correlations, respectively.
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