, Volume 63, Issue 1, pp 53-72

Biotic versus hydrologic control over seasonal nitrate leaching in a floodplain forest

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Abstract

Strong seasonal increases in aquatic (stream, ground and hyporheic water) nitrate have been observed in a variety of ecosystems. In most cases, changes in hydrological and vegetative activity occur contemporaneously, making it difficult to determine whether soil leaching is being driven by increases in the availability of leachable N or is simply due to flushing of N that has accumulated over longer periods. Three studies were conducted to better determine controls on soil nitrate leaching in a near-pristine temperate floodplain ecosystem receiving large N inputs via N-fixation by red alder: 1) an artificial rainfall experiment was conducted to estimate N-leaching potential during the summer, when plant uptake is high and new inputs of organic matter are low; 2) soil solution, groundwater and surface water were sampled during a major autumn storm to document exchanges at the seasonal transition, when plant uptake is low and inputs of senescent organic matter are high; and 3) monthly samples of soil and aquatic nitrogen were collected in 1997 and 1998 to document seasonal patterns of N exchanges. Collectively, these studies demonstrate the importance of hydrologic factors in controlling N flux. Nitrate was rapidly leached from soils during actual and simulated rainstorms. Two pathways of nitrate leaching were identified. Localized flooding and direct leaching of streamside soils into surface waters contributed to high solute concentrations in peak flows. Nitrate that leached into interstitial waters was subject to various factors that could delay or reduce its delivery to surface waters. Greater residence time may increase the influence of this component of stormflow on ecosystem productivity. While soil nitrate pools were rapidly depleted during rainstorms, accumulation of soil nitrate occurred over summer dry periods. Large differences in soil and aquatic nitrate concentrations between two years with contrasting rainfall highlight the potential for inter-annual hydrologic variability to affect ecosystem nutrient cycling.