Biogeochemistry of a temperate forest nitrogen gradient

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Wide natural gradients of soil nitrogen (N) can be used to examine fundamental relationships between plant–soil–microbial N cycling and hydrologic N loss, and to test N-saturation theory as a general framework for understanding ecosystem N dynamics. We characterized plant production, N uptake and return in litterfall, soil gross and net N mineralization rates, and hydrologic N losses of nine Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests across a wide soil N gradient in the Oregon Coast Range (USA). Surface mineral soil N (0–10 cm) ranged nearly three-fold from 0.29% to 0.78% N, and in contrast to predictions of N-saturation theory, was linearly related to 10-fold variation in net N mineralization, from 8 to 82 kg N·ha−1·yr−1. Net N mineralization was unrelated to soil C:N, soil texture, precipitation, and temperature differences among sites. Net nitrification was negatively related to soil pH, and accounted for <20% of net N mineralization at low-N sites, increasing to 85–100% of net N mineralization at intermediate- and high-N sites. The ratio of net : gross N mineralization and nitrification increased along the gradient, indicating progressive saturation of microbial N demands at high soil N. Aboveground N uptake by plants increased asymptotically with net N mineralization to a peak of 35 kg N·ha−1·yr−1. Aboveground net primary production per unit net N mineralization varied inversely with soil N, suggesting progressive saturation of plant N demands at high soil N. Hydrologic N losses were dominated by dissolved organic N at low-N sites, with increased nitrate loss causing a shift to dominance by nitrate at high-N sites, particularly where net nitrification exceeded plant N demands. With the exception of N mineralization patterns, our results broadly support the application of the N-saturation model developed from studies of anthropogenic N deposition to understand N cycling and saturation of plant and microbial sinks along natural soil N gradients. This convergence of behavior in unpolluted and polluted forest N cycles suggests that where future reductions in deposition to polluted sites do occur, symptoms of N saturation are most likely to persist where soil N content remains elevated.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Biogeochemistry of a temperate forest nitrogen gradient
Series title Ecology
DOI 10.1890/10-1642.1
Volume 92
Issue 7
Year Published 2011
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Publisher location Ithaca, NY
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description 11 p.
First page 1481
Last page 1491
Country United States
State Oregon
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