Combination of factors rather than single disturbance drives perturbation of the nitrogen cycle in a temperate forest

Mark B. Green, Linda H. Pardo, John L. Campbell, Emma Rosi, Emily S. Bernhardt, Charles T. Driscoll, Timothy J. Fahey, Nicholas LoRusso, Jackie Matthes, Pamela H. Templer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Nitrogen (N) is a critical element in many ecological and biogeochemical processes in forest ecosystems. Cycling of N is sensitive to changes in climate, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, and air pollution. Streamwater nitrate draining a forested ecosystem can indicate how an ecosystem is responding to these changes. We observed a pulse in streamwater nitrate concentration and export at a long-term forest research site in eastern North America that resulted in a 10-fold increase in nitrate export compared to observations over the prior decade. The pulse in streamwater nitrate occurred in a reference catchment in the 2013 water year, but was not associated with a distinct disturbance event. We analyzed a suite of environmental variables to explore possible causes. The correlation between each environmental variable and streamwater nitrate concentration was consistently higher when we accounted for the antecedent conditions of the variable prior to a given streamwater observation. In most cases, the optimal antecedent period exceeded two years. We assessed the most important variables for predicting streamwater nitrate concentration by training a machine learning model to predict streamwater nitrate concentration in the years preceding and during the streamwater nitrate pulse. The results of the correlation and machine learning analyses suggest that the pulsed increase in streamwater nitrate resulted from both (1) decreased plant uptake due to lower terrestrial gross primary production, possibly due to increased soil frost or reduced solar radiation or both; and (2) increased net N mineralization and nitrification due to warm temperatures from 2010 to 2013. Additionally, variables associated with hydrological transport of nitrate, such as maximum stream discharge, emerged as important, suggesting that hydrology played a role in the pulse. Overall, our analyses indicate that the streamwater nitrate pulse was caused by a combination of factors that occurred in the years prior to the pulse, not a single disturbance event.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-157
Number of pages19
JournalBiogeochemistry
Volume166
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 2023

Keywords

  • Long-term research
  • Nitrogen
  • Streamwater nitrate
  • Temperate forest

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes

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