, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp 113-134

Water table elevation controls on soil nitrogen cycling in riparian wetlands along a European climatic gradient

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Riparian zones have long been considered as nitrate sinks in landscapes. Yet, riparian zones are also known to be very productive ecosystems with a high rate of nitrogen cycling. A key factor regulating processes in the N cycle in these zones is groundwater table fluctuation, which controls aerobic/anaerobic conditions in the soil. Nitrification and denitrification, key processes regulating plant productivity and nitrogen buffering capacities are strictly aerobic and anaerobic processes, respectively. In this study we compared the effects of these factors on the nitrogen cycling in riparian zones under different climatic conditions and N loading at the European scale. No significant differences in nitrification and denitrification rates were found either between climatic regions or between vegetation types. On the other hand, water table elevation turned out to be the prime determinant of the N dynamics and its end product. Three consistent water table thresholds were identified. In sites where the water table level is within −10 cm of the soil surface, ammonification is the main process and ammonium accumulates in the topsoils. Average water tables between −10 and −30 cm favour denitrification and therefore reduce the nitrogen availability in soils. In drier sites, that is, water table level below −30 cm, nitrate accumulates as a result of high net nitrification. At these latter sites, denitrification only occurs in fine textured soils probably triggered by rainfall events. Such a threshold could be used to provide a proxy to translate the consequences of stream flow regime change to nitrogen cycling in riparian zones and consequently, to potential changes in nitrogen mitigation.