Nitrogen oligotrophication in northern hardwood forests

Abstract

While much research over the past 30 years has focused on the deleterious effects of excess N on forests and associated aquatic ecosystems, recent declines in atmospheric N deposition and unexplained declines in N export from these ecosystems have raised new concerns about N oligotrophication, limitations of forest productivity, and the capacity for forests to respond dynamically to disturbance and environmental change. Here we show multiple data streams from long-term ecological research at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, USA suggesting that N oligotrophication in forest soils is driven by increased carbon flow from the atmosphere through soils that stimulates microbial immobilization of N and decreases available N for plants. Decreased available N in soils can result in increased N resorption by trees, which reduces litterfall N input to soils, further limiting available N supply and leading to further declines in soil N availability. Moreover, N oligotrophication has been likely exacerbated by changes in climate that increase the length of the growing season and decrease production of available N by mineralization during both winter and spring. These results suggest a need to re-evaluate the nature and extent of N cycling in temperate forests and assess how changing conditions will influence forest ecosystem response to multiple, dynamic stresses of global environmental change.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation programs in Ecosystem Studies, Long-Term Ecological Research and Long-Term Ecological Research in Environmental Biology and from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. J.D. was supported by a Fulbright fellowship of the Spanish Ministry of Education and by a FCT Research Fellowship of the Portuguese Ministry of Education and Science (SFRH/BDP/87966/2012).

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Correspondence to Peter M. Groffman.

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Responsible Editor: Sujay Kaushal.

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Groffman, P.M., Driscoll, C.T., Durán, J. et al. Nitrogen oligotrophication in northern hardwood forests. Biogeochemistry 141, 523–539 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-018-0445-y

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Carbon
  • Dissolved organic carbon
  • Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest
  • Nitrogen