Uncertainty about winter carbon (C) fluxes and their drivers hinders the accurate estimation of C budgets in high-latitude and high-altitude ecosystems. We conducted 3-year-long field observations of soil respiration (Rs) in an alpine forest in northwestern China. The results showed that the mean winter Rs ranged from 193.79 to 233.03 g C m−2 year−1 and significantly increased with elevation, while the mean growing season Rs ranged from 467.29 to 711.25 g C m−2 year−1 and significantly decreased with elevation. The ratio of winter to annual soil CO2 emissions ranged from 21.96 to 34.24 %. The Q10 value (temperature sensitivity of Rs) also varied seasonally, with significantly higher values in winter (3.00–3.85) than in the growing season (2.08–2.22). During the growing season, the Rs was directly regulated by soil temperature (ST), fine root biomass, and microbial activity and indirectly regulated by nitrate nitrogen via an increase in fine root biomass and microbial activity. In addition to the direct effects of soil moisture (SM), ST, and the ratio of fungi to bacteria (F/B) on winter Rs, we revealed another effect: the indirect effect on Rs of the interaction of ST with SM (decreasing ST and increasing SM) with elevation by reducing the soil aggregate stability, probably improving the organic substrate availability, and decreasing the F/B. The ST was the most important factor affecting the growing season Rs, and SM had the greatest effect on the winter Rs. Overall, our findings indicated that the patterns and underlying mechanisms of Rs dynamics in alpine forests in winter are different from those in the growing season and that research on winter Rs dynamics in alpine forests under future climate conditions is needed due to the greater temperature response of Rs in winter than in the growing season.

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