The Scientific World Journal

The Scientific World Journal / 2001 / Article
Special Issue

Optimizing Nitrogen Management in Food and Energy Production and Environmental Protection: 2nd International Nitrogen Conference 2001

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Research Article | Open Access

Volume 1 |Article ID 107932 | 8 pages |

Ecosystem Processes and Nitrogen Export in Northern U.S. Watersheds

Academic Editor: Joe Wisniewski


There is much interest in the relationship of atmospheric nitrogen (N) inputs to ecosystem outputs as an indicator of possible “nitrogen saturation” by human activity. Longer-term, ecosystem-level mass balance studies suggest that the relationship is not clear and that other ecosystem processes may dominate variation in N outputs. We have been studying small, forested watershed ecosystems in five northern watersheds for periods up to 35 years. Here I summarize the research on ecosystem processes and the N budget. During the past 2 decades, average wet-precipitation N inputs ranged from about 0.1 to 6 kg N ha–1 year–1 among sites. In general, sites with the lowest N inputs had the highest output-to-input ratios. In the Alaska watersheds, streamwater N output exceeded inputs by 70 to 250%. The ratio of mean monthly headwater nitrate (NO3) concentration to precipitation NO3 concentration declined with increased precipitation concentration. A series of ecosystem processes have been studied and related to N outputs. The most important appear to be seasonal change in hydrologic flowpath, soil freezing, seasonal forest-floor inorganic N pools resulting from over-winter mineralization beneath the snowpack, spatial variation in watershed forest-floor inorganic N pools, the degree to which snowmelt percolates soils, and gross soil N mineralization rates.

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