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Increased forest ecosystem carbon and nitrogen storage from nitrogen rich bedrock

Abstract

Nitrogen (N) limits the productivity of many ecosystems worldwide, thereby restricting the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to offset the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 emissions naturally1,2. Understanding input pathways of bioavailable N is therefore paramount for predicting carbon (C) storage on land, particularly in temperate and boreal forests3,4. Paradigms of nutrient cycling and limitation posit that new N enters terrestrial ecosystems solely from the atmosphere. Here we show that bedrock comprises a hitherto overlooked source of ecologically available N to forests. We report that the N content of soils and forest foliage on N-rich metasedimentary rocks (350–950 mg N kg−1) is elevated by more than 50% compared with similar temperate forest sites underlain by N-poor igneous parent material (30–70 mg N kg−1). Natural abundance N isotopes attribute this difference to rock-derived N: 15N/14N values for rock, soils and plants are indistinguishable in sites underlain by N-rich lithology, in marked contrast to sites on N-poor substrates. Furthermore, forests associated with N-rich parent material contain on average 42% more carbon in above-ground tree biomass and 60% more carbon in the upper 30 cm of the soil than similar sites underlain by N-poor rocks. Our results raise the possibility that bedrock N input may represent an important and overlooked component of ecosystem N and C cycling elsewhere.

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Figure 1: Total nitrogen in rock, soil and foliage pools for SFM and BWDC forests.
Figure 2: Nitrogen isotope values of the rock–soil–plant system.
Figure 3: Carbon in above-ground tree biomass for forests growing on N-rich and N-poor lithology.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the United States Forest Service (USFS) for access and insight, particularly D. Young and B. Rust of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest; C. Ramirez, C. Clark and D. Beardsley of USFS Region 5 Remote Sensing Office; and M. North of the Pacific Southwest Research Station for discussion of FIA modelling. I. Fisher, E. Hendel, K. Mayfield and S. Prentice assisted with sample preparation and fieldwork, and E. Brown assisted in processing strontium isotope samples. D. Beaudette provided assistance in analysing soil data. This work was supported by grants from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (to B.Z.H. and R.A.D.) the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (to B.Z.H.) and the Kearney Foundation of Soil Science (to R.A.D.).

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S.L.M., B.Z.H. and R.A.D. contributed to the experimental design and collection of field samples. S.L.M. performed sample processing and laboratory analysis. S.L.M. designed and implemented the FIA modelling component. S.L.M., B.Z.H. and R.A.D. contributed to the interpretation of laboratory data, modelling results and manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Scott L. Morford.

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Morford, S., Houlton, B. & Dahlgren, R. Increased forest ecosystem carbon and nitrogen storage from nitrogen rich bedrock. Nature 477, 78–81 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10415

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