, Volume 139, Issue 1, pp 69–83 | Cite as

How long do elements cycle in terrestrial ecosystems?

  • Marie Spohn
  • Carlos A. Sierra


We explore the question of how long elements cycle in terrestrial ecosystems and show that to address this question, a broader conceptual framework is needed that specifies ages and transit times. We calculated age and transit time distributions of five elements in a forest and two grassland ecosystems. Moreover, we assessed how ages and transit times of elements change in various scenarios. Mean age and mean transit time of all elements were smaller in the two grassland ecosystems than in the forest ecosystem due to the smaller element stocks in the grasslands in relation to the inputs. Phosphorus (P) had the largest mean transit time and mean age of all elements in the forest ecosystem (450 and 469 years) as well as in the high elevation grassland (82 and 80 years). Mean ages and mean transit times changed linearly with the stock in one pool. Changes in the internal cycling of elements in the ecosystem that did not imply the introduction of another pool had no effect on age and transit time. However, the introduction of a stable P pool in the mineral soil led to a divergence of mean transit time and mean age of P. Taken together, based on the probabilistic approach proposed here, we were able to precisely calculate not only the mean times elements need to transit different ecosystems and the ages they reach while cycling the ecosystems, but also the probability distribution of ages and transit times.


Element cycling Ecosystem nutrient cycling Absorbing Markov chain Probabilistic inference Element age Transit time 



Both authors thank the Emmy-Noether program of the German Research Foundation for funding. MS also thanks the German Research Foundation for funding the project SP 1389/5-1 in the priority program 1803 “Earthshape”.

Supplementary material

10533_2018_452_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (354 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 354 kb). Appendix A R Code for all case studies and scenarios
10533_2018_452_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (5 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (TIFF 283 kb). Figure S0 Mean age and mean transit time of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in a high elevation moorland sheep farming system and in an improved hill sheep farming system calculated based on the data presented in Fig. 2. The dashed line has a slope of 1
10533_2018_452_MOESM3_ESM.png (123 kb)
Supplementary material 3 (PNG 122 kb). Figure S1 Stocks and rates of phosphorus (P) in a Eucalyptus regnans forest in south-eastern Australia. Pools are given in bold, fluxes are given in italics, and inputs and outputs of the total ecosystem are marked in red. Fluxes and stocks are the same as in Fig. 1 but two addition P pools (intermediate available P and hardly available P) that exchange P with the easily available P pool are added to the minerals soil
10533_2018_452_MOESM4_ESM.pdf (32 kb)
Supplementary material 4 (PDF 32 kb). Figure S2 Age of (A) nitrogen, (B) phosphorus, (C), potassium, (D) magnesium, and (E) calcium in the vegetation, in the organic layer, and in the mineral soil in a temperate Eucalyptus regnans forest. The mean age of each element is indicated by a dashed line and is given in brackets
10533_2018_452_MOESM5_ESM.pdf (12 kb)
Supplementary material 5 (PDF 11 kb). Figure S3 Age of (A) nitrogen, (B) phosphorus, and (C) potassium in the sheep, in the vegetation and in the mineral soil in a high elevation moorland sheep farming ecosystem. The mean age of each element is indicated by a dashed line and is given in brackets
10533_2018_452_MOESM6_ESM.pdf (10 kb)
Supplementary material 6 (PDF 10 kb). Figure S4 Age of (A) nitrogen, (B) phosphorus, and (C) potassium in the sheep, in the vegetation and in the mineral soil in an improved hill sheep farming ecosystem. The mean age of each element is indicated by a dashed line and is given in brackets
10533_2018_452_MOESM7_ESM.pdf (19 kb)
Supplementary material 7 (PDF 19 kb). Figure S5 Age of (A) nitrogen, (B) phosphorus, and (C) potassium in the sheep, in the vegetation and in the mineral soil in an improved hill sheep farming ecosystem in the original case study and in two scenarios. The mean age of each element is indicated by a dashed line and is given in brackets


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Soil Biogeochemistry, University of BayreuthBayreuthGermany
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for BiogeochemistryJenaGermany

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