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Recurrent winter warming pulses enhance nitrogen cycling and soil biotic activity in temperate heathland and grassland mesocosms

Schuerings, J., A. Jentsch, V. Hammerl, K. Lenz, H.A.L. Henry, A.V. Malyshev and J. Kreyling. 2014. Biogeosciences


Winter air temperatures are projected to increase in the temperate zone, whereas snow cover is projected to decrease, leading to more extreme soil temperature variability, and potentially to changes in nutrient cycling. Therefore, we applied six winter warming pulses by infra-red heating lamps and surface heating wires in a field experiment over one winter in temperate heathland and grassland mesocosms. The experiment was replicated at two sites, a colder mountainous upland site with high snow accumulation and a warmer and dryer lowland site. Winter warming pulses enhanced soil biotic activity for both sites during winter, as indicated by 35% higher nitrogen (N) availability in the soil solution, 40% higher belowground decomposition and a 25% increase in the activity of the enzyme cellobiohydrolase. The mobilization of N differed between sites, and the incorporation of 15N into leaves was reduced by 31% in response to winter warming pulses, but only at the cold site, with significant reductions occurring for three of four tested plant species at this site. Furthermore, there was a trend of increased N leaching in response to the recurrent winter warming pulses. Overall, projected winter climate change in the temperate zone, with less snow and more variable soil temperatures, appears important for shifts in ecosystem functioning (i.e. nutrient cycling). While the effects of warming pulses on plant N mobilization did not differ among sites, reduced plant 15N incorporation at the colder temperate site suggests that frost damage may reduce plant performance in a warmer world, with important implications for nitrogen cycling and nitrogen losses from ecosystems.