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Controls on soil nitrification and stream nitrate export at two forested catchments

Casson, N. J; M. C. Eimers and S. A. Watmough. 2014. Biogeochemistry


Dormant season inorganic nitrogen (N) leaching varies considerably among forested catchments with similar bedrock, forest cover and deposition history. Recent work has highlighted the importance of winter rain-on-snow (ROS) events as a source of winter nitrate (NO3-N) export, but differences among streams are likely due to differences in baseflow NO3-N concentrations, and thus soil N processes. The objective of this study was to investigate rates of N-mineralization and nitrification as well as their potential environmental controls throughout the year, but with particular focus on the winter season in south-central Ontario, Canada. Field incubations were utilized to assess differences in NO3-N and ammonium production over time and across topographic positions in two catchments with contrasting patterns of N export. Rates of nitrification were similar to rates of total mineralization, and nitrification rates were significantly higher during the summer and spring compared with the winter and fall; however, winter nitrification was substantial, and ranged from 19 to 36 % of annual rates. Seasonal differences in nitrification were largely driven by temperature, soil moisture and inorganic N concentration in soil. Rain and melting snow infiltrated the soil during ROS events, which were associated with increased NO3-N availability, particularly in well-drained soils, and ROS-induced increases in stream nitrate concentrations were largest at the catchment dominated by well-drained soil. Annual nitrification fluxes were almost two orders of magnitude greater than N deposition or NO3-N leaching fluxes at either catchment. Similar rates of NO3-N production within the two catchments suggest that consumption of NO3-N within wet soils is responsible for the 10-fold difference in NO3-N export between the two streams. Notably, these results suggest that consumption processes were important for reducing NO3-N export even during winter ROS events.

Key Words

Nitrate Forest Nitrification Winter Stream export