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Evidence that soil carbon pool determines susceptibility of semi-natural ecosystems to elevated nitrogen leaching

Evans, Christopher D. and Reynolds, Brian and Jenkins, Alan and Helliwell, Rachel C. and Curtis, Christopher J. and Goodale, Christine L. and Ferrier, Robert C. and Emmett, Bridget A. and Pilkington, Michael G. and Caporn, Simon J.M. and Carroll, Jacqueline A. and Norris, David and Davies, Jennifer and Coull, Malcolm C. (2006) Evidence that soil carbon pool determines susceptibility of semi-natural ecosystems to elevated nitrogen leaching. Ecosystems, 9 (3). pp. 453-462. ISSN 1432-9840

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Abstract

Deposition of reactive nitrogen (N) compounds has the potential to cause severe damage to sensitive soils and waters, but the process of ‘nitrogen saturation’ is difficult to demonstrate or predict. This study compares outputs from a simple carbon–nitrogen model with observations of (1) regional- and catchment-scale relationships between surface water nitrate and dissolved organic carbon (DOC), as an indicator of catchment carbon (C) pool; (2) inter-regional variations in soil C/N ratios; and (3) plot scale soil and leachate response to long-term N additions, for a range of UK moorlands. Results suggest that the simple model applied can effectively reproduce observed patterns, and that organic soil C stores provide a critical control on catchment susceptibility to enhanced N leaching, leading to high spatial variability in the extent and severity of current damage within regions of relatively uniform deposition. Results also support the hypothesis that the N richness of organic soils, expressed as C/N ratio, provides an effective indicator of soil susceptibility to enhanced N leaching. The extent to which current C/N is influenced by N deposition, as opposed to factors such as climate and vegetation type, cannot be unequivocally determined on the basis of spatial data. However, N addition experiments at moorland sites have shown a reduction in organic soil C/N. A full understanding of the mechanisms of N-enrichment of soils and waters is essential to the assessment of current sensitivity to, and prediction of future damage from, globally increasing reactive nitrogen deposition.

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