, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp 1-15

First online:

Inorganic nitrogen and microbial biomass dynamics before and during spring snowmelt

  • Paul D. BrooksAffiliated withWater Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey –
  • , Mark W. WilliamsAffiliated withDepartment of Geography and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado
  • , Steven K. SchmidtAffiliated withDepartment of EPO Biology, University of Colorado

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Recent work in seasonally snow covered ecosystems has identifiedthawed soil and high levels of heterotrophic activity throughout the winterunder consistent snow cover. We performed measurements during the winter of1994 to determine how the depth and timing of seasonal snow cover affectsoil microbial populations, surface water NO\({\text{NO}}_{\text{3}}^{\text{ - }} \) loss during snowmelt, and plant Navailability early in the growing season. Soil under early accumulating,consistent snow cover remained thawed during most of the winter and bothmicrobial biomass and soil inorganic N pools gradually increased under thesnowpack. At the initiation of snowmelt, microbial biomass N pools increasedfrom 3.0 to 5.9 g n m-2,concurrent with a decrease in soil inorganic N pools. During the latterstages of snowmelt, microbial biomass N pools decreased sharply without aconcurrent increase in inorganic N pools or significant leaching losses. Incontrast, soil under inconsistent snow cover remained frozen during most ofthe winter. During snowmelt, microbial biomass initially increased from 1.7to 3.1 g N m-2 and thendecreased as sites became snow-free. In contrast to smaller pool sizes,NO\({\text{NO}}_{\text{3}}^{\text{ - }} \) export during snowmeltfrom the inconsistent snow cover sites of 1.14 (±0.511) g N m-2 was significantly greater (p< 0.001) than the 0.27 (±0.16) g N m-2 exported from sites with consistent snowcover. These data suggest that microbial biomass in consistentlysnow-covered soil provides a significant buffer limiting the export ofinorganic N to surface water during snowmelt. However, this buffer is verysensitive to changes in snowpack regime. Therefore, interannual variabilityin the timing and depth of snowpack accumulation may explain the year toyear variability in inorganic N concentrations in surface water theseecosystems.

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