δ15N constraints on long-term nitrogen balances in temperate forests

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Abstract

Biogeochemical theory emphasizes nitrogen (N) limitation and the many factors that can restrict N accumulation in temperate forests, yet lacks a working model of conditions that can promote naturally high N accumulation. We used a dynamic simulation model of ecosystem N and δ15N to evaluate which combination of N input and loss pathways could produce a range of high ecosystem N contents characteristic of forests in the Oregon Coast Range. Total ecosystem N at nine study sites ranged from 8,788 to 22,667 kg ha-1 and carbon (C) ranged from 188 to 460 Mg ha-1, with highest values near the coast. Ecosystem δ15N displayed a curvilinear relationship with ecosystem N content, and largely reflected mineral soil, which accounted for 96-98% of total ecosystem N. Model simulations of ecosystem N balances parameterized with field rates of N leaching required long-term average N inputs that exceed atmospheric deposition and asymbiotic and epiphytic N2-fixation, and that were consistent with cycles of post-fire N2-fixation by early-successional red alder. Soil water δ15NO3- patterns suggested a shift in relative N losses from denitrification to nitrate leaching as N accumulated, and simulations identified nitrate leaching as the primary N loss pathway that constrains maximum N accumulation. Whereas current theory emphasizes constraints on biological N2-fixation and disturbance-mediated N losses as factors that limit N accumulation in temperate forests, our results suggest that wildfire can foster substantial long-term N accumulation in ecosystems that are colonized by symbiotic N2-fixing vegetation. © 2011 Springer-Verlag (outside the USA).

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Perakis, S. S., Sinkhorn, E. R., & Compton, J. E. (2011). δ15N constraints on long-term nitrogen balances in temperate forests. Oecologia, 167(3), 793–807. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-011-2016-y

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