Nitrogen (N) is a critical limiting nutrient that regulates plant productivity and the cycling of other essential elements in forests. We measured foliar and soil nutrients in 22 young Douglas-fir stands in the Oregon Coast Range to examine patterns of nutrient availability across a gradient of N-poor to N-rich soils. N in surface mineral soil ranged from 0.15 to 1.05% N, and was positively related to a doubling of foliar N across sites. Foliar N in half of the sites exceeded 1.4% N, which is considered above the threshold of N-limitation in coastal Oregon Douglas-fir. Available nitrate increased five-fold across this gradient, whereas exchangeable magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca) in soils declined, suggesting that nitrate leaching influences base cation availability more than soil parent material across our sites. Natural abundance strontium isotopes (87Sr/86Sr) of a single site indicated that 97% of available base cations can originate from atmospheric inputs of marine aerosols, with negligible contributions from weathering. Low annual inputs of Ca relative to Douglas-fir growth requirements may explain why foliar Ca concentrations are highly sensitive to variations in soil Ca across our sites. Natural abundance calcium isotopes (I'44Ca) in exchangeable and acid leachable pools of surface soil measured at a single site showed 1 per mil depletion relative to deep soil, suggesting strong Ca recycling to meet tree demands. Overall, the biogeochemical response of these Douglas-fir forests to gradients in soil N is similar to changes associated with chronic N deposition in more polluted temperate regions, and raises the possibility that Ca may be deficient on excessively N-rich sites. We conclude that wide gradients in soil N can drive non-linear changes in base-cation biogeochemistry, particularly as forests cross a threshold from N-limitation to N-saturation. The most acute changes may occur in forests where base cations are derived principally from atmospheric inputs.
Additional publication details
Coupled nitrogen and calcium cycling in forests of the Oregon Coast Range