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

Abstract

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 11 kg ha−1 yr−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 61 kg 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 0.31 Pg carbon yr−1.

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Figure 1: Growth and survival response to increasing nitrogen deposition.
Figure 2: Annual above-ground carbon increment increases with nitrogen deposition.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported, in part, by a grant to C.D.C. from the US Department of Energy, National Institute for Climatic Change Research, a Marie Tharp Fellowship, Columbia University to K.C.W., NSF-DEB award #0614099 to C.L.G. and a Kieckhefer Adirondack Foundation grant to R.Q.T. We would like to thank staff from the US Forest Service FIA Program, particularly E. LaPoint, for making the FIA data available to us, and for their considerable help in compiling this particular data set. We also thank C. Carey, J. Caspersen, W. De Vries, F. Magnani, N. Mahowald and W. Schlesinger for suggestions and comments on the manuscript.

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R.Q.T., C.D.C., K.C.W. and C.L.G. all contributed to the development of project ideas, design, analysis interpretation and to writing of the manuscript, with C.L.G. and R.Q.T. originating the project. In addition, C.D.C. and R.Q.T. assembled the FIA and climate data and carried out the statistical analyses, K.C.W. developed the N deposition estimates and C.L.G. and R.Q.T. provided the carbon framework.

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Correspondence to R. Quinn Thomas.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Quinn Thomas, R., Canham, C., Weathers, K. et al. Increased tree carbon storage in response to nitrogen deposition in the US. Nature Geosci 3, 13–17 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo721

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