Disturbance and the resilience of coupled carbon and nitrogen cycling in a north temperate forest

TitleDisturbance and the resilience of coupled carbon and nitrogen cycling in a north temperate forest
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsNave L, Gough CM, Maurer KD, Bohrer G, Hardiman B, Le Moine J, Munoz A.B, Nadelhoffer K, Sparks JP, Strahm B.D, Vogel CS, Curtis PS
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research
Date Published2011

Much of our biogeochemical understanding of forest disturbances comes from studies of severe or stand-replacing events, which may have different impacts on coupled carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling than subtler disturbances affecting only a fraction of the canopy. We measured a suite of interdependent C and N cycling processes following an experimental disturbance that accelerated mortality of the early successional canopy dominants (39% of basal area) in an aging secondary forest, hypothesizing that this subtle, spatially diffuse disturbance would temporarily decouple C and N cycles by decreasing belowground C allocation and thereby alter N cycling rates and pathways. We postulated that a short-term decrease in ecosystem C uptake and an increase in N leaching would accompany this decoupling, but that concomitant increases in N availability and uptake by later successional species would promote rapid resilience of coupled C-N cycles along new, stable trajectories. Disturbance decreased belowground C allocation and soil respiration, accelerated root turnover, and decreased root mass. These perturbations increased forest floor NH+ and NO- availability and NO emission, and declining root function caused water stress and N deficiency in senescent trees. Foliar N and leaf area increased in later successional trees, suggesting that enhanced N uptake supported new leaf area production. Two years after disturbance, N leaching losses and the decline in net ecosystem CO2 exchange were small, suggesting that coupled C-N cycling was resilient to this subtle experimental disturbance. Therefore, compared with the severe disturbances reported in the literature, our subtle disturbance likely will have different effects on longer-term forest biogeochemical trajectories.