Secondary Logo

Journal Logo

Institutional members access full text with Ovid®

The Effect of Moisture Content on the Thermal Conductivity of Moss and Organic Soil Horizons From Black Spruce Ecosystems in Interior Alaska

O'Donnell, Jonathan A.1; Romanovsky, Vladimir E.2; Harden, Jennifer W.3; McGuire, A. David4

doi: 10.1097/SS.0b013e3181c4a7f8
Technical Article

Organic soil horizons function as important controls on the thermal state of near-surface soil and permafrost in high-latitude ecosystems. The thermal conductivity of organic horizons is typically lower than mineral soils and is closely linked to moisture content, bulk density, and water phase. In this study, we examined the relationship between thermal conductivity and soil moisture for different moss and organic horizon types in black spruce ecosystems of interior Alaska. We sampled organic horizons from feather moss-dominated and Sphagnum-dominated stands and divided horizons into live moss and fibrous and amorphous organic matter. Thermal conductivity measurements were made across a range of moisture contents using the transient line heat source method. Our findings indicate a strong positive and linear relationship between thawed thermal conductivity (Kt) and volumetric water content. We observed similar regression parameters (β or slope) across moss types and organic horizons types and small differences in β0 (y intercept) across organic horizon types. Live Sphagnum spp. had a higher range of Kt than did live feather moss because of the field capacity (laboratory based) of live Sphagnum spp. In northern regions, the thermal properties of organic soil horizons play a critical role in mediating the effects of climate warming on permafrost conditions. Findings from this study could improve model parameterization of thermal properties in organic horizons and enhance our understanding of future permafrost and ecosystem dynamics.

1Biology & Wildlife Department, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK. Mr. Jonathan A. O'Donnell is corresponding author. E-mail:

2Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK.

3US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA.

4US Geological Survey, Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK.

Received June 9, 2009.

Accepted for publication October 2, 2009.

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.