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Ecosystem carbon storage in arctic tundra reduced by long-term nutrient fertilization

Abstract

Global warming is predicted to be most pronounced at high latitudes, and observational evidence over the past 25 years suggests that this warming is already under way1. One-third of the global soil carbon pool is stored in northern latitudes2, so there is considerable interest in understanding how the carbon balance of northern ecosystems will respond to climate warming3,4. Observations of controls over plant productivity in tundra and boreal ecosystems5,6 have been used to build a conceptual model of response to warming, where warmer soils and increased decomposition of plant litter increase nutrient availability, which, in turn, stimulates plant production and increases ecosystem carbon storage6,7. Here we present the results of a long-term fertilization experiment in Alaskan tundra, in which increased nutrient availability caused a net ecosystem loss of almost 2,000 grams of carbon per square meter over 20 years. We found that annual aboveground plant production doubled during the experiment. Losses of carbon and nitrogen from deep soil layers, however, were substantial and more than offset the increased carbon and nitrogen storage in plant biomass and litter. Our study suggests that projected release of soil nutrients associated with high-latitude warming may further amplify carbon release from soils, causing a net loss of ecosystem carbon and a positive feedback to climate warming.

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Figure 1: Effect of fertilization on vascular plant aboveground net primary production (ANPP) in tundra.
Figure 2: Effects of fertilization on tundra carbon and nitrogen pools after 20 yr of fertilization.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by NSF, NASA, the Arctic LTER programme and an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship to M.C.M. We thank E. Mitchell, M. Sommerkorn and M. Williams for assistance with the belowground harvest and J. Laundre for laboratory analyses. S. Hobbie and the UF Plant Ecology group provided comments that improved this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michelle C. Mack.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1

Effects of fertilization on the components of aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) in tundra near Toolik Lake, Alaska. Values are means (± 1 standard error) (n=4). Fertilized plots have received 10 g N m-2 yr-1 and 5 g P m-2 yr-1 since 1981. ANPP components were determined through destructive harvests, and data from 1981-1995 harvests are reported in Shaver et al. (2001). Year 2000 data are from this study. (PPT 71 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

Effects of 20 years of fertilization on soil properties of Alaskan tundra. Fertilized tundra near Toolik Lake, Alaska, has received 10 g N m-2 yr-1 and 5 g P m-2 yr-1 since 1981. Means ± 1 standard error are reported by soil layers (litter, shallow organic, deep organic, and mineral) for the following properties: layer depth (cm), bulk density (g cm-3), % C, %N and C:N ratio of bulk soil, and NH4+ and NO3- concentration. Significant differences between treatments are indicated by * (P<0.05), ** (P<0.01), or *** (P<0.001). (DOC 36 kb)

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Mack, M., Schuur, E., Bret-Harte, M. et al. Ecosystem carbon storage in arctic tundra reduced by long-term nutrient fertilization. Nature 431, 440–443 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02887

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