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Nitrogen deposition and nitrification in coniferous forests’

  • Carnol, Monique
Publication Date
Oct 27, 1997
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The increased inorganic nitrogen (N) deposition in the last decades has become a major concern for the health of forest ecosystems. High anthropogenic N emissions, mainly from fossil fuel combustion and livestock agriculture, have resulted in both high gaseous concentrations and high deposition in rainfall and throughfall. In forest ecosystem, where N is no longer limiting to primary production due to high inputs, the excess N is thought to be related to forest decline and a concept of ‘N saturation ‘ has been developed. In particular, N in the form of NH4, in excess to plant and microbial demands could lead to soil acidification if nitrified in the soil and leached, causing loss of base cations or mobilisation of phytotoxic aluminium. Nutrient imbalances due to high soil solution NH4/cation ratios or damaged root systems may also occur. The fate of the incoming NH4 is central to determining the effects on the ecosystem, and is closely related to the controls of nitrification. Although this process has been intensely studied in pure cultures for some nitrifying bacteria, the organisms responsible and controlling factors in acid forest soils are still poorly understood. A better comprehension of the fate of NH4 deposition is necessary to determine ‘Critical Loads for N’, the threshold deposition not damaging to the ecosystem, which is used as a political tool for quantifying pollution limits. In this thesis, I focused on a) the effects of increased (NH4)2SO4 deposition on soil solution chemistry of six coniferous forest sites the presence of live roots, b) the impacts of (NH4)2SO4 deposition on Norway spruce (Picea abies [L.] Karst) and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) fine roots, and c) the controls of nitrification in an acid forest soil. The work was part of the CEC project ‘CORE’, investigating the effects of atmospheric pollution on nutrient turnover in soils. An identical field experiment was performed in six coniferous sites, situated in five European countries. Chronically increased NH4 deposition by 75 kg N ha-1 a-1 through (NH4)2SO4 application, demonstrated the contrasting responses of the different ecosystems. Soil solution concentrations and yearly ionic fluxes were analysed. (NH4)2SO4 treatment resulted in deposition of 79 to 93 kg N ha-1 a-1 at the different sites. In the two less acidic, clay/clay loam soils, only 6% of the added NH4 was lost through leaching. The two sandy soils lost up to 75% of the added NH4, and the two remaining sites lost ca. 25%. Leaching of added NH4 was thought to be related to soil physico-chemical characteristics, such as pH, C and N content and texture. NO3 leaching was increased at three sites, only 4-9 months after starting the (NH4)2SO4 treatment, with a maximum doubling of concentrations. One sandy soil failed to nitrify under any condition, and the other sandy soil showed high NO3 leaching under all treatments, but no increase due to increased N inputs. The presence of live roots reduced NO3 leaching in two sites, delaying the increase in soil solution NO3 concentrations in response to the (NH4)2SO4 deposition in one of them. In all nitrifying soils, soil solution NO3 concentrations were related to cation concentrations, with Al being the dominant cation in the more acid soils with low base saturation. This experiment demonstrated the importance of soil N storage capacity and nitrification potential in determining the consequences of increased NH4 deposition, and the strong relationship between NO3 and cation leaching. Ionic fluxes and soil solution chemistry were further analysed in one of the six sites (Grizedale, UK). In this Norway spruce stand on clay soil, NO3 fluxes were increased by increased (NH4)2SO4 deposition, and mainly balanced by increased Al losses. This soil had a pHH2O around 3.6, and was characterised by over 90% of the exchange complex being occupied by Al. Independent of treatment, soil solution changed from Ca to Al leaching during the 18 month field experiment, with a decrease in soil solution pH from 4.9 to 3.8. At the end of the experiment, soil solution Al concentrations were higher for the (NH4)2SO4 treatments. It was suggested that nitrification had caused the pH decrease, with a further lowering of the base saturation, linked to a abrupt increase in soil solution Al concentrations. The impacts of increased (NH4)2SO4 deposition and soil characteristics on Norway spruce root biomass and vitality, and on Norway spruce and Scots pine fine root chemistry, were investigated with an ingrowth core technique. The same experiment was performed in a Norway spruce stand on clay soil (Grizedale, UK) and a Scots pine stand on sandy soil (Wekerom, NL), using soil from each of the two sites. For Norway spruce, root biomass and numbers of fine root tips were higher in the organic than in the mineral horizon of the clay and sandy soils. This was related to higher fine root Al and lower Ca contents in the mineral horizon. Root biomass and the proportion of dead roots were higher in the clay soil, compared to the sandy soil, with higher root Al contents, despite lower soil solution Al concentrations than in the sandy soil. For Norway spruce, a negative correlation between root biomass and fine root Al content was established. Enhanced N deposition caused an increase in the total number of root tips and in the proportion of dead roots in the sandy soil. Effects of increased (NH4)2SO4 deposition on root biomass were not significant for the clay soil, yet caused increased fine root N content in the organic horizon for both species. Scots pine fine roots also showed higher Al and lower Ca contents in the mineral horizon. (NH4)2SO4 treatment caused increased fine root Al content and a decreased Mg/Al ratio in the mineral layer of the sandy soil, with opposite effects in the clay soil. This (NH4)2SO4 treatment effect in the sandy soil for Scots pine was the only indication of a potential adverse effect of (NH4)2SO4 deposition on fine roots. Results demonstrated the dominant importance of inherent soil characteristics and the stratification into soil horizons on fine root growth and chemical composition. The effects of temperature, throughfall volume and NH4 deposition on soil solution NO3 concentrations, N2O emissions and numbers of NH4 oxidisers were investigated for the Grizedale soil in a controlled laboratory experiment. Multiple regression and surface response analysis revealed temperature as the most important factor, with an optimum for NO3 leaching and numbers of NH4 oxidisers in the mineral horizon at 11°C. Volume acted independently of temperature with a minimum at 870 mm throughfall 2 weeks-1. The relatively low optimum temperature compared to other studies was explained by the minimum disturbance of the soil in the current study. NO3 fluxes increased quadratically with throughfall volume. N2O fluxes increased quadratically with temperature and throughfall volume, and showed high variability. It was suggested that the temperature optimum for net nitrification depended on the physico-chemical characteristics of the soil and on the activity of decomposers, by competition for O2 and NH4. Optimum temperatures may have been overestimated in previous studies using disturbed soils. The regression model for NO3 leaching derived from the laboratory experiment was applied to data from the previous field experiment and tested with different time intervals for temperature input parameters. A model including two-monthly mean temperatures yielded the best fit between measured and simulated values, as determined by correlation and minimum sum of squared residuals. Simulated NO3 leaching was over-estimated in the second part of the field study. The good correspondence between field temperature frequency distribution and the optimum temperature determined by the regression model, as well as the high correlation between measured and simulated values, demonstrated the adequacy of a quadratic model with a relatively low temperature optimum to describe field NO3 leaching, determined for the same soil with an identical sampling design.

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