, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 519-532,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 20 Feb 2011

Conditions Under Which Nitrogen Can Limit Steady-State Net Primary Production in a General Class of Ecosystem Models


Human activity is drastically altering global nitrogen (N) availability. The extent to which ecosystems absorb additional N—and with it, additional CO2—depends on whether net primary production (NPP) is N-limited, so it is important to understand conditions under which N can limit NPP. Here I use a general dynamical model to show that N limitation at steady-state—such as in old-growth forests—depends on the balance of biotically controllable versus uncontrollable N inputs and losses. Steady-state N limitation is only possible when uncontrollable inputs (for example, atmospheric deposition) exceed controllable losses (for example, leaching of plant-available soil N), which is the same as when uncontrollable losses (for example, leaching of plant-unavailable soil N) exceed controllable inputs (biological N fixation). These basic results are robust to many model details, such as the number of plant-unavailable soil N pools and the number and type of N fixers. Empirical data from old-growth tropical (Hawai’i) and temperate (Oregon, Washington, Chile) forests support the model insights. Practically, this means that any N fixer—symbiotic or not—could overcome ecosystem N limitation, so understanding N limitation requires understanding controls on all N fixers. Further, comparing losses of plant-available N to abiotic inputs could offer a rapid diagnosis of whether ecosystems can be N-limited, although the applicability of this result is constrained to ecosystems with a steady-state N cycle such as old-growth forests largely devoid of disturbance.

Author Contributions

DNLM conceived of and designed the study, performed the research, analyzed the data, contributed new models, and wrote the paper.