Human societies depend on an Earth system that operates within a constrained range of nutrient availability, yet the recent trajectory of terrestrial nitrogen (N) availability is uncertain. Examining patterns of foliar N concentrations and isotope ratios (δ15N) from more than 43,000 samples acquired over 37 years, here we show that foliar N concentration declined by 9% and foliar δ15N declined by 0.6–1.6‰. Examining patterns across different climate spaces, foliar δ15N declined across the entire range of mean annual temperature and mean annual precipitation tested. These results suggest declines in N supply relative to plant demand at the global scale. In all, there are now multiple lines of evidence of declining N availability in many unfertilized terrestrial ecosystems, including declines in δ15N of tree rings and leaves from herbarium samples over the past 75–150 years. These patterns are consistent with the proposed consequences of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons. These declines will limit future terrestrial carbon uptake and increase nutritional stress for herbivores.
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Funding for this research was in part provided by the BRIDGE Project (ANR-2006 Biodiversity Call) and from an ‘Investissement d’Avenir’ grant managed by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (CEBA, grant no. ANR-10-LABX-0025) (J.C.R.); by the European Research Council through the Advanced Grant Project TREEPEACE (grant no. FP7-339728) and the Cluster of Excellence COTE (grant no. ANR-10-LABX-45) (S.D.); by NASA project no. NNX12AK56G and EU MSCA individual fellowship (project no. 705432) (R.G.); by COILEX (grant no. CGL2008-01671), ECOLPIN (grant no. AGL2011-24296) and EU MSCA individual fellowship (project no. 750252) (S.M.J.); and by the Russian Science Foundation (grant no. 16-14-10208) (M.M.). No funding was provided to J.M.C. or A.J.E. in support of this research.
Although J.M.C. is an owner of Jonah Ventures, a for-profit DNA sequencing company, the authors declare no competing interests in the publication of this research.
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Craine, J.M., Elmore, A.J., Wang, L. et al. Isotopic evidence for oligotrophication of terrestrial ecosystems. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1735–1744 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0694-0
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