Nitrogen footprint in a long-term observation of forest growth over the twentieth century

Abstract

Environmental drivers of forest productivity increases have been much debated. Evidence for the suggested role of increasing nitrogen supply is lacking over long-term time scales. Tracking the footprint of environmental factors by using long-term growth records may thus prove decisive. We analysed growth chronologies of common beech in two areas of contrasting nutritional status in France. Dominant height growth was used as a proxy for productivity. Growth was compared between old and young paired stands sampled at the same sites to factor out effects of ageing and site. Growth chronologies were estimated with a statistical modelling procedure. The environmental causality of growth changes was addressed by combining (1) a comparison of growth changes between regions, (2) a regional comparison of growth chronologies with chronologies of environmental factors and (3) growth–environment relationships established from climate/soil data. Historical growth increases followed very similar courses in the two areas. Remarkably, the magnitude of change was 50% lower in the area that had reduced nutritional status and nitrogen deposition. Historical variations in environmental factors and growth were congruent with the roles of nitrogen availability and deposition, and of atmospheric CO2 increase. Low-frequency variations in climate and growth were not coincident. However, our analysis demonstrated the role of climatic anomalies in short-term growth variations. Growth–environment relationships further indicated a nitrogen constraint. These observations corroborate the enhancing role of increased nitrogen availability on forest biomass accumulation previously reported in ecosystem experiments and process-based modelling explorations.

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Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully thank the French Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries (MAP) and the French Forest Service (ONF) for providing funding and support to the present study. They also wish to thank Antoine Cazin (INRA), Jérôme Piat (ONF) and several ONF services for their helpful assistance in the sampling phase, Daniel Rittié (INRA) for conducting stem analyses, Vincent Perez (AgroParisTech) for climate data extraction, Erwin Ulrich and Manuel Nicolas (ONF) for useful discussions on nitrogen deposition measurements and associated models, and Jean-Claude Pierrat (INRA) and the two anonymous reviewers, that greatly helped in clarifying the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jean-Daniel Bontemps.

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Communicated by A. Gessler.

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Bontemps, JD., Hervé, JC., Leban, JM. et al. Nitrogen footprint in a long-term observation of forest growth over the twentieth century. Trees 25, 237–251 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00468-010-0501-2

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Keywords

  • Forest growth
  • Long-term trends
  • Nitrogen
  • Climate
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Fagus sylvatica