, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 754–766 | Cite as

Long-term Nutrient Fertilization Increased Soil Carbon Storage in California Grasslands

  • Yang LinEmail author
  • Eric W. Slessarev
  • Scott T. Yehl
  • Carla M. D’Antonio
  • Jennifer Y. King


Elevated nutrient deposition often increases primary productivity in terrestrial ecosystems and thus has the potential to increase the flux of carbon (C) into soils. An important step toward greater understanding of nutrient effects on C storage involves assessing effects on different fractions of the soil C pool across a range of soil types. We quantified the combined effects of 8 years of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and micronutrient fertilization on the C storage in bulk soil and in density fractions at four grassland sites in California. When averaged across sites, fertilization increased soil light fraction C by 64% relative to the control in the 0–10 cm depth. The increase in light fraction C likely resulted from the fertilization-induced increase in plant C input to soil, as aboveground net primary productivity also consistently increased with fertilization across sites. Effects of fertilization on heavy fraction C were highly site specific, having positive, negative, or no effect at individual sites. The response of heavy fraction C to fertilization appeared to be related to mean annual precipitation and soil bulk density. Overall, bulk soil C concentration showed a marginally significant increase of 6% with fertilization when averaged across sites (P = 0.07). Our results indicate that biomass production and soil light fraction are generally sensitive to fertilization across grasslands in California, likely contributing to increases in soil C storage. Responses of heavy fraction C, on the other hand, vary greatly among sites and may depend on climate and soil characteristics.


Nutrient Network (NutNet) particulate organic matter (POM) mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM) priming C/N ratio Mediterranean climate 



We thank Summer Ahmed, Heather Dang, Beatrix Jimenez, Keri Opalk, Andrew Saunders, Whendee Silver, Frank Wang, and Kana Yamamoto for their support in field and laboratory work. We thank Elizabeth Borer, Stan Harpole, Anita Krause, Eric Lind, and Eric Seabloom from the NutNet headquarters for facilitating this study. We also appreciate the help from Hannah Bird, Anthony Jackson, Catherine Koehler, and Kate McCurdy for providing access to the sites and logistical support. This study benefited from discussion with Joseph Blankinship, Sarah Hobbie, Peter Homyak, and Charlotte Riggs. We thank the subject-matter editor and two anonymous reviewers for their comments that improved this manuscript. This project was supported by a Faculty Research Grant to JYK and YL from the Academic Senate, UCSB, and by funding to C. D’Antonio from UCSB and the Schuyler Endowment.

Supplementary material

10021_2018_300_MOESM1_ESM.docx (282 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 281 kb)


  1. Anderson DM, Glibert PM, Burkholder JM. 2002. Harmful algal blooms and eutrophication: nutrient sources, composition, and consequences. Estuaries 25:704–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bird JA, Kleber M, Torn MS. 2008. 13C and 15N stabilization dynamics in soil organic matter fractions during needle and fine root decomposition. Org Geochem 39:465–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Borer ET, Harpole WS, Adler PB, Lind EM, Orrock JL, Seabloom EW, Smith MD. 2014. Finding generality in ecology: a model for globally distributed experiments. Methods Ecol Evolut 5:65–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bradford MA, Fierer N, Jackson RB, Maddox TR, Reynolds JF. 2008. Nonlinear root-derived carbon sequestration across a gradient of nitrogen and phosphorous deposition in experimental mesocosms. Glob Change Biol 14:1113–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bradford MA, Keiser AD, Davies CA, Mersmann CA, Strickland MS. 2013. Empirical evidence that soil carbon formation from plant inputs is positively related to microbial growth. Biogeochemistry 113:271–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cenini VL, Fornara DA, McMullan G, Ternan N, Lajtha K, Crawley MJ. 2015. Chronic nitrogen fertilization and carbon sequestration in grassland soils: evidence of a microbial enzyme link. Biogeochemistry 126:301–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cerli C, Celi L, Kalbitz K, Guggenberger G, Kaiser K. 2012. Separation of light and heavy organic matter fractions in soil—testing for proper density cut-off and dispersion level. Geoderma 170:403–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chapin FS. 1980. The mineral nutrition of wild plants. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 11:233–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cotrufo MF, Ngao J, Marzaioli F, Piermatteo D. 2010. Inter-comparison of methods for quantifying above-ground leaf litter decomposition rates. Plant Soil 334:365–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cotrufo MF, Soong JL, Horton AJ, Campbell EE, Haddix ML, Wall DH, Parton WJ. 2015. Formation of soil organic matter via biochemical and physical pathways of litter mass loss. Nat Geosci 8:2520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. De Deyn GB, Cornelissen JHC, Bardgett RD. 2008. Plant functional traits and soil carbon sequestration in contrasting biomes. Ecol Lett 11:516–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Ding J, Chen L, Ji C, Hugelius G, Li Y, Liu L, Qin S, Zhang B, Yang G, Li F, Fang K, Chen Y, Peng Y, Zhao X, He H, Smith P, Fang J, Yang Y. 2017. Decadal soil carbon accumulation across Tibetan permafrost regions. Nat Geosci 10:1–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Elser JJ, Bracken MES, Cleland EE, Gruner DS, Harpole WS, Hillebrand H, Ngai JT, Seabloom EW, Shurin JB, Smith JE. 2007. Global analysis of nitrogen and phosphorus limitation of primary producers in freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Ecol Lett 10:1135–42.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Fornara DA, Banin L, Crawley MJ. 2013. Multi-nutrient vs. nitrogen-only effects on carbon sequestration in grassland soils. Global Change Biol 19:3848–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Golchin A, Oades JM, Skjemstad JO, Clarke P. 1994. Study of free and occluded particulate organic matter in soils by solid state 13C CP/MAS NMR spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy. Soil Res 32:285–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Harpole WS, Ngai JT, Cleland EE, Seabloom EW, Borer ET, Bracken MES, Elser JJ, Gruner DS, Hillebrand H, Shurin JB. 2011. Nutrient co-limitation of primary producer communities. Ecol Lett 14:852–62.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. He Y, Trumbore SE, Torn MS, Harden JW, Vaughn LJS, Allison SD, Randerson JT. 2016. Radiocarbon constraints imply reduced carbon uptake by soils during the 21st century. Science 353:1419–24.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. He YT, Zhang WJ, Xu MG, Tong XG, Sun FX, Wang JZ, Huang SM, Zhu P, He XH. 2015. Long-term combined chemical and manure fertilizations increase soil organic carbon and total nitrogen in aggregate fractions at three typical cropland soils in China. Sci Total Environ 532:635–44.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Homer C, Huang C, Yang L, Wylie B, Coan M. 2004. Development of a 2001 national land-cover database for the United States. Photogramm Eng Remote Sens 70:829–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hooper DU, Johnson L. 1999. Nitrogen limitation in dryland ecosystems: Responses to geographical and temporal variation in precipitation. Biogeochemistry 46:247–93.Google Scholar
  21. Janzen HH, Campbell CA, Brandt SA, Lafond GP, Townley-Smith L. 1992. Light-fraction organic matter in soils from long-term crop rotations. Soil Sci Soc Am J 56:1799–806.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jobbágy EG, Jackson RB. 2000. The vertical distribution of soil organic carbon and its relation to climate and vegetation. Ecol Appl 10:423–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kallenbach CM, Grandy AS, Frey SD, Diefendorf AF. 2015. Microbial physiology and necromass regulate agricultural soil carbon accumulation. Soil Biol Biochem 91:279–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kidd J, Manning P, Simkin J, Peacock S, Stockdale E. 2017. Impacts of 120 years of fertilizer addition on a temperate grassland ecosystem. PLoS ONE 12:e0174632.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  25. Kuminoff NV, Sokolow AD, Sumner DA. 2001. Farmland conversion: perceptions and realities. University of California Agricultural Issues Center Issues Brief Number 16, May 2001. Last viewed 03/13/18 at
  26. Lal R. 2004. Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304:1623–7.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Lehmann J, Kinyangi J, Solomon D. 2007. Organic matter stabilization in soil microaggregates: Implications from spatial heterogeneity of organic carbon contents and carbon forms. Biogeochemistry 85:45–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Li JH, Yang YJ, Li BW, Li WJ, Wang G, Knops JMH. 2014. Effects of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilization on soil carbon fractions in alpine meadows on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. PLoS ONE 9:103266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Liu E, Yan C, Mei X, He W, Bing SH, Ding L, Liu Q, Liu S, Fan T. 2010. Long-term effect of chemical fertilizer, straw, and manure on soil chemical and biological properties in northwest China. Geoderma 158:173–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Liu L, Greaver TL. 2010. A global perspective on belowground carbon dynamics under nitrogen enrichment. Ecol Lett 13:819–28.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Lu M, Zhou X, Luo Y, Yang Y, Fang C, Chen J, Li B. 2011. Minor stimulation of soil carbon storage by nitrogen addition: A meta-analysis. Agric, Ecosyst Environ 140:234–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Luo Z, Wang E, Sun OJ. 2016. A meta-analysis of the temporal dynamics of priming soil carbon decomposition by fresh carbon inputs across ecosystems. Soil Biol Biochem 101:96–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Malhi SS, Harapiak JT, Nyborg M, Gill KS, Monreal CM, Gregorich EG. 2003. Light fraction organic N, ammonium, nitrate and total N in a thin Black Chernozemic soil under bromegrass after 27 annual applications of different N rates. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 65:201–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mambelli S, Bird JA, Gleixner G, Dawson TE, Torn MS. 2011. Relative contribution of foliar and fine root pine litter to the molecular composition of soil organic matter after in situ degradation. Org Geochem 42:1099–108.Google Scholar
  35. Marin-Spiotta E, Silver WL, Swanston CW, Ostertag R. 2009. Soil organic matter dynamics during 80 years of reforestation of tropical pastures. Global Change Biol 15:1584–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Melillo JM, Aber JD, Linkins AE, Ricca A, Fry B, Nadelhoffer KJ. 1989. Carbon and nitrogen dynamics along the decay continuum: plant litter to soil organic matter. Plant Soil 115:189–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Menz FC, Seip HM. 2004. Acid rain in Europe and the United States: an update. Environ Sci Policy 7:253–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Miltner A, Kindler R, Knicker H, Richnow H-H, Kästner M. 2009. Fate of microbial biomass-derived amino acids in soil and their contribution to soil organic matter. Org Geochem 40:978–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Moharana PC, Sharma BM, Biswas DR, Dwivedi BS, Singh RV. 2012. Long-term effect of nutrient management on soil fertility and soil organic carbon pools under a 6-year-old pearl millet–wheat cropping system in an Inceptisol of subtropical India. Field Crops Res 136:32–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Neff JC, Townsend AR, Gleixner G, Lehman SJ, Turnbull J, Bowman WD. 2002. Variable effects of nitrogen additions on the stability and turnover of soil carbon. Nature 419:915–17.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. NRCS. 2004. Soil Survey Laboratory Methods Manual. Soil Survey Investigations Report 42, Version 4.0. United States Department of Agriculture.Google Scholar
  42. Nyborg M, Malhi SS, Solberg ED, Izaurralde RC. 1999. Carbon storage and light fraction C in a grassland Dark Gray Chernozem soil as influenced by N and S fertilization. Can J Soil Sci 79:317–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Post WM, Pastor J, Zinke PJ, Stangenberger AG. 1985. Global patterns of soil nitrogen storage. Nature 317:613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. R Core Team. 2017. R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL
  45. Rasmussen C, Heckman K, Wieder WR, Keiluweit M, Lawrence CR, Berhe AA, Blankinship JC, Crow SE, Druhan JL, Hicks Pries CE, Marin-Spiotta E, Plante AF, Schädel C, Schimel JP, Sierra CA, Thompson A, Wagai R. 2018. Beyond clay: towards an improved set of variables for predicting soil organic matter content. Biogeochemistry 137:297–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Riggs CE, Hobbie SE. 2016. Mechanisms driving the soil organic matter decomposition response to nitrogen enrichment in grassland soils. Soil Biol Biochem 99:54–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Riggs CE, Hobbie SE, Bach EM, Hofmockel KS, Kazanski CE. 2015. Nitrogen addition changes grassland soil organic matter decomposition. Biogeochemistry 125:203–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sardans J, Peñuelas J. 2015. Potassium: a neglected nutrient in global change. Global Ecol Biogeogr 24:261–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Schlesinger WH, Bernhardt ES. 2013. Biogeochemistry: an analysis of global change. New York: Academic press.Google Scholar
  50. Simpson AJ, Simpson MJ, Smith E, Kelleher BP. 2007. Microbially derived inputs to soil organic matter: are current estimates too low? Environ Sci Technol 41:8070–6.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Sollins P, Kramer M, Swanston C, Lajtha K. 2009. Sequential density fractionation across soils of contrasting mineralogy: evidence for both microbial-and mineral-controlled soil organic matter stabilization. Biogeochemistry 96:209–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sollins P, Swanston C, Kleber M, Filley T, Kramer M, Crow S, Ba Caldwell, Lajtha K, Bowden R. 2006. Organic C and N stabilization in a forest soil: evidence from sequential density fractionation. Soil Biol Biochem 38:3313–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Sulman BN, Phillips RP, Oishi AC, Shevliakova E, Pacala SW. 2014. Microbe-driven turnover offsets mineral-mediated storage of soil carbon under elevated CO2. Nat Clim Change 4:1099–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tian K, Zhao Y, Xu X, Hai N, Huang B, Deng W. 2015. Effects of long-term fertilization and residue management on soil organic carbon changes in paddy soils of China: a meta-analysis. Agric, Ecosyst Environ 204:40–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Tong X, Xu M, Wang X, Bhattacharyya R, Zhang W, Cong R. 2014. Long-term fertilization effects on organic carbon fractions in a red soil of China. CATENA 113:251–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit, Harris IC, Jones PD. 2017. CRU TS4.01: Climatic Research Unit (CRU) Time-Series (TS) version 4.01 of high-resolution gridded data of month-by-month variation in climate (Jan. 1901–Dec. 2016). Centre for Environmental Data Analysis, 04 December 2017.
  57. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 1998. Soil survey of Yuba County, California (in coorperation with Regents of the University of California, Agricultural Experiment Station and USDA, Forest Service): U.S. Govt. Print. Office, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  58. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2006. Soil survey of Mendocino County, western part (in cooperation with the California Department of Forestry, Soil Vegetation Survey; Georgia-Pacific Corporation; the Regents of the University of California, Agricultural Experiment Station; and the USDI, Bureau of Land Management): U.S. Govt. Print. Office, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  59. USDA Soil Conservation Service. 1972. Soil survey of northern Santa Barbara area, California (In cooperation with University of California, Agricultural Experiment Station): U.S. Govt. Print. Office, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  60. USDA Soil Conservation Service. 1989. Soil survey of Lake County, California (in cooperation with USDA, Forest Service & USDI, Bureau of Land Management, and the Regents of the University of California, Agricultural Experiment Station): U.S. Govt. Print. Office, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  61. Vitousek PM, Mooney HA, Lubchenco J, Melillo JM. 1997. Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Science 277:494–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Vitousek PM, Porder SP, Houlton BZ, Chadwick OA. 2010. Terrestrial phosphorus limitation: mechanisms, implications, and nitrogen- phosphorus interactions. Ecol Appl 20:5–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wagner S, Cattle SR, Scholten T. 2007. Soil-aggregate formation as influenced by clay content and organic-matter amendment. J Plant Nutr Soil Sci 170:173–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Yue K, Peng Y, Peng C, Yang W, Peng X, Wu F. 2016. Stimulation of terrestrial ecosystem carbon storage by nitrogen addition: A meta-analysis. Sci Rep 6:1–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and ManagementUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  3. 3.Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  4. 4.Environmental Studies ProgramUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

Personalised recommendations