Nitrogen enrichment regulates calcium sources in forests

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Abstract

Nitrogen (N) is a key nutrient that shapes cycles of other essential elements in forests, including calcium (Ca). When N availability exceeds ecosystem demands, excess N can stimulate Ca leaching and deplete Ca from soils. Over the long term, these processes may alter the proportion of available Ca that is derived from atmospheric deposition vs. bedrock weathering, which has fundamental consequences for ecosystem properties and nutrient supply. We evaluated how landscape variation in soil N, reflecting long-term legacies of biological N fixation, influenced plant and soil Ca availability and ecosystem Ca sources across 22 temperate forests in Oregon. We also examined interactions between soil N and bedrock Ca using soil N gradients on contrasting basaltic vs. sedimentary bedrock that differed 17-fold in underlying Ca content. We found that low-N forests on Ca-rich basaltic bedrock relied strongly on Ca from weathering, but that soil N enrichment depleted readily weatherable mineral Ca and shifted forest reliance toward atmospheric Ca. Forests on Ca-poor sedimentary bedrock relied more consistently on atmospheric Ca across all levels of soil N enrichment. The broad importance of atmospheric Ca was unexpected given active regional uplift and erosion that are thought to rejuvenate weathering supply of soil minerals. Despite different Ca sources to forests on basaltic vs. sedimentary bedrock, we observed consistent declines in plant and soil Ca availability with increasing N, regardless of the Ca content of underlying bedrock. Thus, traditional measures of Ca availability in foliage and soil exchangeable pools may poorly reflect long-term Ca sources that sustain soil fertility. We conclude that long-term soil N enrichment can deplete available Ca and cause forests to rely increasingly on Ca from atmospheric deposition, which may limit ecosystem Ca supply in an increasingly N-rich world.

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