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Distribution of nitrogen-15 tracers applied to the canopy of a mature spruce-hemlock stand, Howland, Maine, USA

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In N-limited ecosystems, fertilization by N deposition may enhance plant growth and thus impact C sequestration. In many N deposition–C sequestration experiments, N is added directly to the soil, bypassing canopy processes and potentially favoring N immobilization by the soil. To understand the impact of enhanced N deposition on a low fertility unmanaged forest and better emulate natural N deposition processes, we added 18 kg N ha−1 year−1 as dissolved NH4NO3 directly to the canopy of 21 ha of spruce-hemlock forest. In two 0.3-ha subplots, the added N was isotopically labeled as 15NH4 + or 15NO3 (1% final enrichment). Among ecosystem pools, we recovered 38 and 67% of the 15N added as 15NH4 + and 15NO3 , respectively. Of 15N recoverable in plant biomass, only 3–6% was recovered in live foliage and bole wood. Tree twigs, branches, and bark constituted the most important plant sinks for both NO3 and NH4 +, together accounting for 25–50% of 15N recovery for these ions, respectively. Forest floor and soil 15N retention was small compared to previous studies; the litter layer and well-humified O horizon were important sinks for NH4 + (9%) and NO3 (7%). Retention by canopy elements (surfaces of branches and boles) provided a substantial sink for N that may have been through physico-chemical processes rather than by N assimilation as indicated by poor recoveries in wood tissues. Canopy retention of precipitation-borne N added in this particular manner may thus not become plant-available N for several years. Despite a large canopy N retention potential in this forest, C sequestration into new wood growth as a result of the N addition was only ~16 g C m−2 year−1 or about 10% above the current net annual C sequestration for this site.

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We thank the International Paper Company, and GMO, LLC for providing access to the research site in Howland, Maine. We also thank our technical support staff; Mr. John Lee, Ms. Holly Hughes, Mr. Charles Rodrigues and George Sharard, and undergraduates; Mr. David Dunston, Ms. Nell Burger and Ms. Gretchen Miles; Department of Energy (DOE) SURE program interns who worked on this project. This research was supported by the Office of Science (BER), U.S. Department of Energy Terrestrial Carbon Program, under Interagency Agreement no. DE-AI02-00ER63028 and through the Northeast Regional Center of the National Institute for Global Environmental Change under Cooperative Agreement nos. DE-FC02-03ER63613, DE-FC-03-90ER61010, and DE-FG02-00ER63002; and through the National Institute for Climatic Change Research agreement no. DE-FG02-06ER64157 and National Science Foundation (NSF) award no. 0223188. Financial support does not constitute an endorsement by the DOE or NSF of the views expressed in this article. This experiment was in compliance with the current laws of the state of Maine and the United States of America.

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Correspondence to David Bryan Dail.

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Communicated by Hormoz BassiriRad.

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Bryan Dail, D., Hollinger, D.Y., Davidson, E.A. et al. Distribution of nitrogen-15 tracers applied to the canopy of a mature spruce-hemlock stand, Howland, Maine, USA. Oecologia 160, 589–599 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-009-1325-x

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  • Nitrogen-15
  • Nitrate
  • Ammonium
  • Nitrogen deposition
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Forest elemental cycling