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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2024

What happens to trees and soils during five decades of experimental nitrogen loading?

Larson, Johannes; Högberg, Peter; Lucas, Richard; et al.

Abstract

High deposition of nitrogen was postulated to drive losses of NO3 - and nutrient base cations, causing soil acidification, nutrient deficiencies reducing tree growth and ultimately tree mortality. We tested these predictions in a uniquely long-term study involving three NH4NO3 addition treatments (N1-N3) in a boreal Pinus sylvestris forest. The lowest level (N1), 30 kg N ha− 1 yr− 1 was applied during 50 years. Twice this rate (N2) was added 38 years, followed by 12 years of recovery, while thrice this rate (N3) was added 20 years followed by 30 years of recovery. We compared tree growth, changes in foliar and soil chemistry among treatments including control plots without N additions. As predicted, the N treatments lowered soil pH and reduced soil base saturation by around 50 %. They also lowered foliar levels of Ca, Mg, K, P and B initially, but after 50 years only Ca and Mg remained lower than in the control. Lack of B motivated a single addition of 2.5 kg ha− 1 after ten years of N treatment. Tree stem growth became and then remained higher in N1 than in the other treatments through the 50 years of treatments. In N2 and N3, foliar δ15N increased during the N-loading phase, but declined during the recovery phase, indicating a return of ectomycorrhizal fungi and their role in tightening the N cycle in N-limited forests. In the terminated, initially highest N treatments, N2 and N3, the trees even show signs of returning to Nlimitation. In these treatments, the soil base saturation remains lower, while the pH was only lower at 0–10 depth in the mineral soil, but not in the 10–20 cm depth horizon or in the superficial organic mor-layer. Accurately documenting the effect of N additions on forest growth required a long-term approach, where reasonable rates of application could be compared with extreme rates. Such long-term experiments are necessary to support forest management in achieving goals for developing future forests as they shift in response to major, global-scale changes.

Keywords

Boreal forest; Ectomycorrhiza; Forest decline; Nitrogen deposition; Tree growth; Soil acidification

Published in

Forest Ecology and Management
2024, Volume: 553, article number: 121644