Ecosystem ecology - Original Paper


, Volume 168, Issue 3, pp 819-828

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Soil warming alters nitrogen cycling in a New England forest: implications for ecosystem function and structure

  • S. M. ButlerAffiliated withThe Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory Email author 
  • , J. M. MelilloAffiliated withThe Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory
  • , J. E. JohnsonAffiliated withBiology Department, Stanford University
  • , J. MohanAffiliated withSchool of Ecology, University of Georgia
  • , P. A. SteudlerAffiliated withThe Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory
  • , H. LuxAffiliated withDepartment of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard Forest
  • , E. BurrowsAffiliated withRutgers University
  • , R. M. SmithAffiliated withGeology Department, University of Maryland
  • , C. L. VarioAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College
    • , L. ScottAffiliated withThe Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory
    • , T. D. HillAffiliated withYale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
    • , N. AponteAffiliated withUniversity of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez
    • , F. BowlesAffiliated withResearch Designs


Global climate change is expected to affect terrestrial ecosystems in a variety of ways. Some of the more well-studied effects include the biogeochemical feedbacks to the climate system that can either increase or decrease the atmospheric load of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Less well-studied are the effects of climate change on the linkages between soil and plant processes. Here, we report the effects of soil warming on these linkages observed in a large field manipulation of a deciduous forest in southern New England, USA, where soil was continuously warmed 5°C above ambient for 7 years. Over this period, we have observed significant changes to the nitrogen cycle that have the potential to affect tree species composition in the long term. Since the start of the experiment, we have documented a 45% average annual increase in net nitrogen mineralization and a three-fold increase in nitrification such that in years 5 through 7, 25% of the nitrogen mineralized is then nitrified. The warming-induced increase of available nitrogen resulted in increases in the foliar nitrogen content and the relative growth rate of trees in the warmed area. Acer rubrum (red maple) trees have responded the most after 7 years of warming, with the greatest increases in both foliar nitrogen content and relative growth rates. Our study suggests that considering species-specific responses to increases in nitrogen availability and changes in nitrogen form is important in predicting future forest composition and feedbacks to the climate system.


Soil warming Net nitrogen mineralization Nitrification Species-specific nutrient acquisition strategies