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Negative impact of nitrogen deposition on soil buffering capacity

Nature Geoscience volume 1, pages 767770 (2008) | Download Citation



Anthropogenic nitrogen deposition over the past half century has had a detrimental impact on temperate ecosystems in Europe and North America, resulting in soil acidification and a reduction in plant biodiversity1,2. During the acidification process, soils release base cations, such as calcium and magnesium, neutralizing the increase in acidity. Once these base cations have been depleted, aluminium is released from the soils, often reaching toxic levels. Here, we present results from a nitrogen deposition experiment that suggests that a long legacy of acid deposition in the Western Tatra Mountains of Slovakia has pushed soils to a new threshold of acidification usually associated with acid mine drainage soils. We show that increases in nitrogen deposition in the region result in a depletion of both base cations and soluble aluminium, and an increase in extractable iron concentrations. In conjunction with this, we observe a nitrogen-deposition-induced reduction in the biomass of vascular plants, associated with a decrease in shoot calcium and magnesium concentrations. We suggest that this site, and potentially others in central Europe, have reached a new and potentially more toxic level of soil acidification in which aluminium release is superseded by iron release into soil water.

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We thank C. Meier, K. Suding, H. Steltzer, Z. Kostka, L. Holko, S. David, J. Sedláková, O. Plume, S. Desplaines, G. Bugar, M. Boltižiar, F. Petrovič, M. Mojses, F. Kohút and A. Darrouzet-Nardi for assistance with establishing the research plots and maintaining treatment applications. P. Fleischer kindly shared data on bulk deposition rates in the Tatra National Park. C. Driscoll assisted with interpretation of extractable soil cation data, and J. Holloway, J. Neff, C. Meier, I. Ashton, A. Darrouzet-Nardi, S. Reed, A. Townsend and K. Tea provided constructive comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. Financial support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation (OISE-0112281) and the Slovak Academy of Sciences (INT-0112281 and VEGA 2/4132/04).

Author information


  1. Mountain Research Station, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0450, USA

    • William D. Bowman
  2. Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA

    • Cory C. Cleveland
  3. Institute of Landscape Ecology, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Akademicka 2, PO Box 23 B, Nitra, SK-949 01, Slovak Republic

    • Ĺuboš Halada
    •  & Juraj Hreško
  4. US Geological Survey, Natural Resources Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA

    • Jill S. Baron


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W.D.B. determined the research plan, obtained financial support, participated in the field work, analysed the plant samples and wrote the paper. C.C.C. participated in field work, analysed the soil samples and contributed to the writing of the paper. L.H. obtained financial support and along with J.H. supervised the field crews maintaining the experiment and assisted with collection of plant and soil samples. J.S.B. assisted with interpretation of the results and contributed to the writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to William D. Bowman.

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