, Volume 74, Issue 1, pp 63-99

Identifying calcium sources at an acid deposition-impacted spruce forest: a strontium isotope, alkaline earth element multi-tracer approach

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Abstract

Depletion of calcium from forest soils has important implications for forest productivity and health. Ca is available to fine feeder roots from a number of soil organic and mineral sources, but identifying the primary source or changes of sources in response to environmental change is problematic. We used strontium isotope and alkaline earth element concentration ratios of trees and soils to discern the record of Ca sources for red spruce at a base-poor, acid deposition-impacted watershed. We measured 87Sr/86Sr and chemical compositions of cross-sectional stemwood cores of red spruce, other spruce tissues and sequential extracts of co-located soil samples. 87Sr/86Sr and Sr/Ba ratios together provide a tracer of alkaline earth element sources that distinguishes the plant-available fraction of the shallow organic soils from those of deeper organic and mineral soils. Ca/Sr ratios proved less diagnostic, due to within-tree processes that fractionate these elements from each other. Over the growth period from 1870 to 1960, 87Sr/86Sr and Sr/Ba ratios of stemwood samples became progressively more variable and on average trended toward values that considered together are characteristic of the uppermost forest floor. In detail the stemwood chemistry revealed an episode of simultaneous enhanced uptake of all alkaline earth elements during the growth period from 1930 to 1960, coincident with reported local and regional increases in atmospheric inputs of inorganic acidity. We attribute the temporal trends in stemwood chemistry to progressive shallowing of the effective depth of alkaline earth element uptake by fine roots over this growth period, due to preferential concentration of fine roots in the upper forest floor coupled with reduced nutrient uptake by roots in the lower organic and upper mineral soils in response to acid-induced aluminum toxicity. Although both increased atmospheric deposition and selective weathering of Ca-rich minerals such as apatite provide possible alternative explanations of aspects of the observed trends, the chemical buffering capacity of the forest floor-biomass pool limits their effectiveness as causal mechanisms.