, Volume 121, Issue 1, pp 229–245 | Cite as

Atmospheric nitrogen inputs and losses along an urbanization gradient from Boston to Harvard Forest, MA

  • Preeti Rao
  • Lucy R. Hutyra
  • Steve M. Raciti
  • Pamela H. TemplerEmail author


Urbanization alters nitrogen (N) cycling, but the spatiotemporal distribution and impact of these alterations on ecosystems are not well-quantified. We measured atmospheric inorganic N inputs and soil leaching losses along an urbanization gradient from Boston, MA to Harvard Forest in Petersham, MA. Atmospheric N inputs at urban sites (12.3 ± 1.5 kg N ha−1 year−1) were significantly greater than non-urban (5.7 ± 0.5 kg N ha−1 year−1) sites with NH4 + (median value of 77 ± 4 %) contributing thrice as much as NO3 . Proximity to urban core correlated positively with NH4 + (R2 = 0.57, p = 0.02) and total inorganic N inputs (R2 = 0.61, p = 0.01); on-road CO2 emissions correlated positively with NO 3 inputs (R2 = 0.74, p = 0.003). Inorganic N leaching rates correlated positively with atmospheric N input rates (R2 = 0.61, p = 0.01), but did not differ significantly between urban and non-urban sites (p > 0.05). Our empirical measurements of atmospheric N inputs are greater for urban areas and less for rural areas compared to modeled regional estimates of N deposition. Five of the nine sites had NO 3 leached that came almost entirely from nitrification, indicating that the NO3 in leachate came from biological processes rather than directly passing through the soil. A significant proportion (17–100 %) of NO 3 leached from the other four sites came directly from the atmosphere. Surprisingly, the four sites where atmospheric sources made up the largest proportion of leachate NO3 also had relatively low N leaching rates, suggesting that atmospheric N inputs added to terrestrial ecosystems can move to multiple sinks and losses simultaneously, rather than being lost via leaching only after abiotic and biotic sinks have become saturated. This study improves our understanding of atmospheric N deposition and leaching in urban ecosystems, and highlights the need to incorporate urbanization effects in N deposition models.


Atmospheric inputs Leaching Nitrogen deposition Nitrogen saturation Stable isotopes Urbanization gradient 



This research was funded by the Deland Award for Student Research from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, the National Science Foundation and US Forest Service Urban Long Term Research Area Exploratory Awards (ULTRA-Ex) program (DEB-0948857), and a National Science Foundation CAREER award (DEB-1149471). We gratefully acknowledge assistance in laboratory and instrumental analyses from Stephanie Juice and Marc-Andre Giasson. We are grateful to Mass Audubon and the private land owners for allowing us to set up throughfall collectors. We thank Adrien Finzi for his valuable feedback and generous support in this study, and Brittain Briber and Max Brondfield for their help in field data collection.

Supplementary material

10533_2013_9861_MOESM1_ESM.eps (15 kb)
Online Resource 1 Bar plots representing the different sampling periods of resin column measurements of NH4 + and NO3 (mg N m−2 day−1). For each site, the four bars represent the consecutive sampling time periods for May–October 2011 (EPS 15 kb)
10533_2013_9861_MOESM2_ESM.eps (20 kb)
Online Resource 2 Box-plots showing variations in NH4 + and NO3 measurements for a atmospheric inputs (kg N ha−2 year−1) and b leaching (μg N g resin−1 year−1) at urban (total four sites) and non-urban sites (total five sites). Note that these box plots indicate median values, whereas values reported in the text are mean values + standard error from bootstrapping (EPS 19 kb)
10533_2013_9861_MOESM3_ESM.eps (33 kb)
Online Resource 3 Difference between modeled and measured values of NH4 +, NO3 and total atmospheric inorganic N inputs as a function of a proximity to urban core of Boston, b the impervious surface area (ISA) fraction, and c road CO2 emissions, based on the 1 km2 area surrounding each location for measuring N inputs. Similar to Fig. 3, this figure shows the sites in increasing order of urbanization intensity, including proximity to the urban core, ISA fraction, and road CO2 emissions (EPS 32 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Preeti Rao
    • 2
  • Lucy R. Hutyra
    • 2
  • Steve M. Raciti
    • 2
  • Pamela H. Templer
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of BiologyBoston UniversityBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Earth and EnvironmentBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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