, Volume 14, Issue 6, pp 1021-1037

First online:

What Have Stable Isotope Studies Revealed About the Nature and Mechanisms of N Saturation and Nitrate Leaching from Semi-Natural Catchments?

  • Chris J. CurtisAffiliated withEnvironmental Change Research Centre, University College London Email author 
  • , Chris D. EvansAffiliated withCEH Bangor, Environment Centre Wales
  • , Christine L. GoodaleAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University
  • , Tim H.E. HeatonAffiliated withNERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, BGS Keyworth

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Various studies over the last 15 years have attempted to describe the processes of N retention, saturation and NO3 leaching in semi-natural ecosystems based on stable isotope studies. Forest ecologists and terrestrial biogeochemists have used 15N labelled NO3 and NH4 + tracers to determine the fate of atmospheric deposition inputs of N to terrestrial ecosystems, with NO3 leaching to surface waters being a key output flux. Separate studies by aquatic ecologists have used similar isotope tracer methods to determine the fate and impacts of inorganic N species, leached from terrestrial ecosystems, on aquatic ecosystems, usually without reference to comparable terrestrial studies. A third group of isotopic studies has employed natural abundances of 15N and 18O in precipitation and surface water NO3 to determine the relative contributions of atmospheric and microbial sources. These three sets of results often appear to conflict with one another. Here we attempt to synthesize and reconcile the results of these differing approaches to identifying both the source and the fate of inorganic N in natural or semi-natural ecosystems, and identify future research priorities. We conclude that the results of different studies conform to a consistent conceptual model comprising: (1) rapid microbial turnover of atmospherically deposited NO3 at multiple biologically active locations within both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; (2) maximum retention and accumulation of N in carbon-rich ecosystems and (3) maximum leaching of NO3 , most of which has been microbially cycled, from carbon-poor ecosystems exposed to elevated atmospheric N inputs.


Nitrate 15N 18O dual isotopes nitrogen saturation deposition catchment