• Soils, Sec 2 • Global Change, Environ Risk Assess, Sustainable Land Use • Research Article
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Simulation of soil freezing-thawing cycles under typical winter conditions: implications for nitrogen mineralization

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Seasonal freezing-thawing cycles (FTCs) are common phenomena in middle- and high-latitude regions that may have a strong effect on soil nitrogen (N) mineralization. As yet, little information is available about N mineralization of cultivated soils affected by FTCs, especially during non-growing seasons. It is proposed that N transformation of boreal farmland soil should be well responsive to FTCs because their microbial community and physiochemical characteristics are easily influenced by human agricultural activities. To examine this hypothesis, laboratory simulation experiments were carried out to investigate the effects of different amplitudes, frequencies, and moisture regimes of FCTs on soil N mineralization dynamics, to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms influencing the effect of FTCs on soil N availability during the non-growing season.

Materials and methods

In a laboratory simulation study, cultivated black soil (BL) and brown soil (BR) (Haplic Phaeozems and Haplic Luvisols, respectively; World Reference Base for Soil Resources 1988) were collected from two provincial experimental stations to assess the dynamics of N mineralization under four FTC factors (five levels for freezing temperature, two levels for thawing temperature, five levels for freezing-thawing frequency, and three levels for soil moisture regime).

Results and discussion

There were marked variations in inorganic N pools, microbial biomass N (MBN), and net N mineralization rate (NNMR) for both soils during the FTCs. In both soils, ammonium N (NH4-N) and nitrate N (NO3-N) concentrations, as well as NNMR, significantly increased with the decrease in freezing temperature, but the opposite was observed for MBN. However, fluctuating thawing temperature had no significant influence on the available N forms measured. As FTCs’ frequency increased, the NH4-N, NO3-N concentrations, and NNMR substantially decreased in both soils, while the MBN concentration initially increased and then declined, reaching the peak at the sixth FTC. The available N fractions in both soils had different response patterns as soil water content rose, showing a considerable increase of NH4-N, a distinct decrease of NO3-N, a steady increase for NNMR, and an initial increase followed by a decreasing trend for MBN.


This study has demonstrated that FTCs during the non-growing season in temperate regions can accelerate N mineralization via increases in freezing-thawing amplitude and freezing-thawing duration. Therefore, there is a potential risk of N losses over the early spring thawing period.

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We thank Dr. Craig Anderson, Dr. Edmar Teixeira, and Dr. Edith Khaembah for reviewing this paper. We also appreciate Anne Gunson for her great efforts to improve and polish the writing style of this paper.

Funding information

This research was financially supported by the Special Fund for Agro-scientific Research in the Public Interest (grant number 201503118-08), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant number 41301253), the Liaoning Revitalization Talents Program (XLYC1807221), the National Key Research and Development Program of China (grant number 2017YFD0300702 and 2018YFD0300303), and the Cultivation Plan for Youth Agricultural Science and Technology Innovative Talents of Liaoning Province (grant number 2014018).

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Correspondence to Wentao Sun or Weiwen Qiu.

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Juan, Y., Tian, L., Sun, W. et al. Simulation of soil freezing-thawing cycles under typical winter conditions: implications for nitrogen mineralization. J Soils Sediments 20, 143–152 (2020) doi:10.1007/s11368-019-02374-8

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  • Farmland soils
  • Freezing-thawing cycles
  • N availability
  • N mineralization