Combustion influences on natural abundance nitrogen isotope ratio in soil and plants following a wildfire in a sub-alpine ecosystem
This before-and-after-impact study uses the natural abundance N isotope ratio (δ15N) to investigate the effects of a wildfire on sub-alpine ecosystem properties and processes. We measured the 15N signatures of soil, charred organic material, ash and foliage in three sub-alpine plant communities (grassland, heathland and woodland) in south-eastern Australia. Surface bulk soil was temporarily enriched in 15N immediately after wildfire compared to charred organic material and ash in all plant communities. We associated the enrichment of bulk soil with fractionation of N during combustion and volatilization of N, a process that also explains the sequential enrichment of 15N of unburnt leaves > ash > charred organic material in relation to duration and intensity of heating. The rapid decline in 15N of bulk soil to pre-fire values indicates that depleted ash, containing considerable amounts of total N, was readily incorporated into the soil. Foliar δ15N also increased with values peaking 1 year post-fire. Foliar enrichment was foremost coupled with the release of enriched NH4+ into the soil owing to isotopic discrimination during volatilization of soluble N and combustion of organic material. The mode of post-fire regeneration influenced foliar 15N enrichment in two species indicating use of different sources of N following fire. The use of natural abundance of 15N in soil, ash and foliage as a means of tracing transformation of N during wildfire has established the importance of combustion products as an important, albeit temporary source of inorganic N for plants regenerating after wildfire.