Letter abstract

Nature Geoscience 3, 13 - 17 (2010)
Published online: 22 December 2009 | doi:10.1038/ngeo721

Subject Category: Biogeochemistry

Increased tree carbon storage in response to nitrogen deposition in the US

R. Quinn Thomas1, Charles D. Canham2, Kathleen C. Weathers2 & Christine L. Goodale1


Human activities have greatly accelerated emissions of both carbon dioxide and biologically reactive nitrogen to the atmosphere1, 2. As nitrogen availability often limits forest productivity3, it has long been expected that anthropogenic nitrogen deposition could stimulate carbon sequestration in forests4. However, spatially extensive evidence for deposition-induced stimulation of forest growth has been lacking, and quantitative estimates from models and plot-level studies are controversial5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Here, we use forest inventory data to examine the impact of nitrogen deposition on tree growth, survival and carbon storage across the northeastern and north-central USA during the 1980s and 1990s. We show a range of growth and mortality responses to nitrogen deposition among the region’s 24 most common tree species. Nitrogen deposition (which ranged from 3 to 11kgha−1yr−1) enhanced the growth of 11 species and decreased the growth of 3 species. Nitrogen deposition enhanced growth of all tree species with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi associations. In the absence of disturbances that reduced carbon stocks by more than 50%, above-ground biomass increment increased by 61kg of carbon per kg of nitrogen deposited, amounting to a 40% enhancement over pre-industrial conditions. Extrapolating to the globe, we estimate that nitrogen deposition could increase tree carbon storage by 0.31Pg carbon yr−1.

  1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Corson Hall, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA
  2. Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Box AB, Millbrook, New York, 12545, USA

Correspondence to: R. Quinn Thomas1 e-mail: rqt2@cornell.edu


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