PRS Publications

Increased microbial uptake and plant nitrogen availability in response to simulated nitrogen deposition in alpine meadows.

Simpson, A. C., Zabowski, D., Rochefort, R. M., & Edmonds, R. L. . 2019.


As global industry and intensive agriculture increase in response to an expanding human population, oligotrophic ecosystems such as alpine and subalpine habitats are increasingly vulnerable to transported atmospheric nitrogen (N) pollution. Even at low levels, N deposition can alter soil chemistry via changes in decomposition rates and mineralization of N from soil organic matter. We used fertilization to mimic N deposition in three National Park alpine meadow ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) of the United States (an area of low ambient N deposition) over a 3-year period. Our sites were two moist heath meadow ecosystems in the western Cascade Mountains and one dry meadow ecosystem in the eastern Olympic Mountains. We assessed alpine soil chemistry and N cycling responses to simulated N deposition, using soil inorganic N availability to plants as a critical loads indicator. Soil solution inorganic N supply as measured by resin probes increased in response to N treatment at all sites by Year 3 in plots fertilized at the 10 kg N per ha-1 yr-1 treatment level. At the heath meadow sites, we observed increased soil NO3-N during the summer and decreased extractable organic carbon (C) during the fall in response to applied N. We also observed seasonal increases in the proportion of soil N contained in microbial biomass in response to treatment. These data indicate season-specific increases in microbial N uptake and mineralization in response to fertilizer treatment. The carbon-rich, fine-ash volcanic soils of the North Cascades were the most sensitive to N treatment with low microbial N uptake. From those soils, we derived an empirical critical load of 6 kg N per ha-1 yr-1 for increased soil N availability. However, alpine meadow soils in the Western Cascades undergo N limitation in the fall and may have less potential for N leaching with fall rains. In contrast, soils at the dry meadow site had much greater potential for N mineralization, and are temperature- and moisture-limited rather than N limited. Changes in soil chemistry in response to N deposition were site-specific and resulted from differences in plant uptake and soil N mineralization capacity, indicating two very different regimes for response to N deposition for N-limited alpine meadows vs moisture-limited alpine meadows.

Key Words

Alpine Nitrogen deposition Nitrogen cycle Microbial biomass Critical N loads Soil Biogeochemistry