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Major losses of nutrients following a severe drought in a boreal forest


Because of global warming, the frequency and severity of droughts are expected to increase, which will have an impact on forest ecosystem health worldwide1. Although the impact of drought on tree growth and mortality is being increasingly documented24, very little is known about the impact on nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems. Here, based on long-term monitoring data, we report nutrient fluxes in a boreal forest before, during and following a severe drought in July 2012. During and shortly after the drought, we observed high throughfall (rain collected below the canopy) concentrations of nutrient base cations (potassium, calcium and magnesium), chlorine, phosphorus and dissolved organic carbon (DOC), differing by one to two orders of magnitude relative to the long-term normal, and resulting in important canopy losses. The high throughfall fluxes had repercussions in the soil solution at a depth of 30 cm, leading to high DOC, chlorine and potassium concentrations. The net potassium losses (atmospheric deposition minus leaching losses) following the drought were especially important, being the equivalent of nearly 20 years of net losses under ‘normal’ conditions. Our data show that droughts have unexpected impacts on nutrient cycling through impacts on tree canopy and soils and may lead to important episodes of potassium losses from boreal forest ecosystems. The potassium losses associated with drought will add to those originating from tree harvesting and from forest fires and insect outbreaks57 (with the last two being expected to increase in the future as a result of climate change), and may contribute to reduced potassium availability in boreal forests in a warming world.

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Figure 1: Map of precipitation anomalies in July 2012 for the province of Quebec relative to the months of July for the reference period 1971–2000.
Figure 2: Canopy loss of nutrients in response to drought.
Figure 3: Loss of potassium from soil in response to drought.


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This research was supported by the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec (MFFP). We would like to thank J. Gagné, and M. St-Germain for field assistance, and the chemistry laboratory of the Direction de la recherche forestière (MFFP) for chemical analyses. We also thank T. Logan for providing Fig. 1.

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L.D. and D.H. designed and performed the experiment. D.H., G.L. and L.D. analysed the data. D.H. and G.L. wrote the manuscript and L.D. revised the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel Houle.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–4, Supplementary Table 1. (PDF 752 kb)

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Houle, D., Lajoie, G. & Duchesne, L. Major losses of nutrients following a severe drought in a boreal forest. Nature Plants 2, 16187 (2016).

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