A Microbial-Explicit Soil Organic Carbon Decomposition Model (MESDM): Development and Testing at a Semiarid Grassland Site

Xia Zhang, Zhenghui Xie, Zhuguo Ma, Greg A. Barron-Gafford, Russell L. Scott, Guo Yue Niu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Explicit representations of microbial processes in soil organic carbon (SOC) decomposition models have received increasing attention, because soil heterotrophic respiration remains one of the greatest uncertainties in climate-carbon feedbacks projected by Earth system models (ESMs). Microbial-explicit models have been developed and applied in site- and global-scale studies. These models, however, lack the ability to represent microbial respiration responses to drying-wetting cycles, and few of them have been incorporated in land surface models (LSMs) and validated against field observations. In this study, we developed a multi-layer, microbial-explicit soil organic carbon decomposition model (MESDM), based on two main assumptions that (a) extracellular enzymes remain active at dry reaction microsites, and (b) microbes at wet microsites are active or potentially active, while microbes at the dry microsites are dormant, by dividing the soil volume into wet and dry zones. MESDM with O2 and CO2 gas transport models was coupled with Noah-MP LSM and tested against half-hourly field observations at a semiarid grassland site in the southwest US characterized by pulsed precipitation. The results show MESDM can reproduce the observed soil respiration pulses of various sizes in response to discrete precipitation events (Birch effect) and thus improve the simulation of net ecosystem exchange. Here, both microbial accessibility to accumulated dissolved organic carbon and reactivation of dormant microbes at the dry microsites upon rewetting are critical to reproducing the Birch effect. This study improves our understanding of and ability to simulate complex soil carbon dynamics that experience drying-wetting cycle in climate-carbon feedbacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021MS002485
JournalJournal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • extracellular enzyme
  • land surface model
  • microbial dormancy
  • microbial-explicit model
  • soil heterotrophic respiration
  • soil organic carbon decomposition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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