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Research article2016Peer reviewedOpen access

Long-term declines in stream and river inorganic nitrogen (N) export correspond to forest change

Lucas, Richard; Sponseller, Ryan; Gundale, Michael; Stendahl, Johan; Fridman, Jonas; Högberg, Peter; Laudon, Hjalmar


Human activities have exerted a powerful influence on the biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) and drive changes that can be a challenge to predict given the influence of multiple environmental stressors. This study focused on understanding how land management and climate change have together influenced terrestrial N storage and watershed inorganic N export across boreal and sub-arctic landscapes in northern Sweden. Using long-term discharge and nutrient concentration data that have been collected continuously for over three decades, we calculated the hydrologic inorganic N export from nine watersheds in this region. We found a consistent decline in inorganic N export from 1985 to 2011 over the entire region from both small and large watersheds, despite the absence of any long-term trend in river discharge during this period. The steepest declines in inorganic N export were observed during the growing season, consistent with the hypothesis that observed changes are biologically mediated and are not the result of changes in long-term hydrology. Concurrent with the decrease in inorganic N export, we report sustained increases in terrestrial N accumulation in forest biomass and soils across northern Sweden. Given the close communication of nutrient and energy stores between plants, soils, and waters, our results indicate a regional tightening of the N cycle in an already N-limited environment as a result of changes in forest management and climate-mediated growth increases. Our results are consistent with declining inorganic N efflux previously reported from small headwater streams in other ecosystems and shed new light on the mechanisms controlling these patterns by identifying corresponding shifts in the terrestrial N balance, which have been altered by a combination of management activities and climate change.


boreal forest; climate-mediated growth increases; forest management; soil N storage; Sweden; terrestrial biogeochemistry; terrestrial N retention

Published in

Ecological Applications
2016, Volume: 26, number: 2, pages: 545-556