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A Spatially Explicit, Empirical Estimate of Tree-Based Biological Nitrogen Fixation in Forests of the United States

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Abstract

Quantifying human impacts on the nitrogen (N) cycle and investigating natural ecosystem N cycling depend on the magnitude of inputs from natural biological nitrogen fixation (BNF). Here, we present two bottom-up approaches to quantify tree-based symbiotic BNF based on forest inventory data across the coterminous United States and SE Alaska. For all major N-fixing tree genera, we quantify BNF inputs using (1) ecosystem N accretion rates (kg N ha−1 yr−1) scaled with spatial data on tree abundance and (2) percent of N derived from fixation (%Ndfa) scaled with tree N demand (from tree growth rates and stoichiometry). We estimate that trees fix 0.30–0.88 Tg N yr−1 across the study area (1.4–3.4 kg N ha−1 yr−1). Tree-based N fixation displays distinct spatial variation that is dominated by two genera, Robinia (64% of tree-associated BNF) and Alnus (24%). The third most important genus, Prosopis, accounted for 5%. Compared to published estimates of other N fluxes, tree-associated BNF accounted for 0.59 Tg N yr−1, similar to asymbiotic (0.37 Tg N yr−1) and understory symbiotic BNF (0.48 Tg N yr−1), while N deposition contributed 1.68 Tg N yr−1 and rock weathering 0.37 Tg N yr−1. Overall, our results reveal previously uncharacterized spatial patterns in tree BNF that can inform large-scale N assessments and serve as a model for improving tree-based BNF estimates worldwide. This updated, lower BNF estimate indicates a greater ratio of anthropogenic to natural N inputs, suggesting an even greater human impact on the N cycle.

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Staccone, A., Liao, W., Perakis, S., Compton, J., Clark, C. M., & Menge, D. (2020). A Spatially Explicit, Empirical Estimate of Tree-Based Biological Nitrogen Fixation in Forests of the United States. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 34(2). https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GB006241

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