The biogeochemistry of potassium at Hubbard Brook

Gene E. Likens, Charles T. Driscoll, Donald C. Buso, Thomas G. Siccama, Chris E. Johnson, Gary M. Lovett, Douglas F. Ryan, Timothy Fahey, William A. Reiners

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

153 Scopus citations


A synthesis of the biogeochemistry of K was conducted during 1963-1992 in the reference and human-manipulated watershed-ecosystems of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBEF), NH. Results showed that during the first two years of the study (1963-65), which coincided with a drought period, the reference watershed was a net sink for atmospheric inputs of K. During the remaining years, this watershed has been a net source of K for downstream ecosystems. There have been long-term declines in volume-weighted concentration and flux of K at the HBEF; however, this pattern appears to be controlled by the relatively large inputs during the initial drought years. Net ecosystem loss (atmospheric deposition minus stream outflow) showed an increasing trend of net loss, peaking during the mid-1970s and declining thereafter. This pattern of net K loss coincides with trends in the drainage efflux of SO42- and NO3-, indicating that concentrations of strong acid anions may be important controls of dissolved K loss from the site. There were no long-term trends in streamwater concentration or flux of K. A distinct pattern in pools and fluxes of K was evident based on biotic controls in the upper ecosystem strata (canopy, boles, forest floor) and abiotic controls in lower strata of the ecosystem (mineral soil, glacial till). This biological control was manifested through higher concentrations and fluxes of K in vegetation, aboveground litter, throughfall and forest floor pools and soil water in the northern hardwood vegetation within the lower reaches of the watershedecosystem, when compared with patterns in the high-elevation spruce-fir zone. Abiotic control mechanisms were evident through longitudinal variations in soil cation exchange capacity (related to soil organic matter) and soil/till depth, and temporal and disturbance-related variations in inputs of strong-acid anions. Marked differences in the K cycle were evident at the HBEF for the periods 1964-69 and 1987-92. These changes included decreases in biomass storage, net mineralization and throughfall fluxes and increased resorption in the latter period. These patterns seem to reflect an ecosystem response to decreasing rates of biomass accretion during the study. Clearcutting disturbance resulted in large losses of K in stream water and from the removal of harvest products. Stream losses occur from release from slash, decomposition of soil organic matter and displacement from cation exchange sites. Elevated concentrations of K persist in stream water for many years after clearcutting. Of the major elements, K shows the slowest recovery from clearcutting disturbance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-125
Number of pages65
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1994


  • Potassium biogeochemistry
  • forest disturbance
  • forest ecosystem
  • soil chemistry
  • stream chemistry
  • wet and dry deposition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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