Adding depth to our understanding of nitrogen dynamics in permafrost soils

Published by Stephanie Mayer on

Losses of C from decomposing permafrost may be offset by increased productivity of tundra plants, but nitrogen availability partially limits plant growth in tundra ecosystems. In this soil incubation experiment carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling dynamics were examined from the soil surface down through upper permafrost. We found that losses of CO2 were negatively correlated to net N mineralization because C-rich surface soils mineralized little N, while deep soils had low rates of C respiration but high rates of net N mineralization. Permafrost soils released a large flush of inorganic N when initially thawed. Depth-specific rates of N mineralization from the incubation were combined with thaw depths and soil temperatures from a nearby manipulative warming experiment to simulate the potential magnitude, timing, and depth of inorganic N release during the process of permafrost thaw. Our calculations show that inorganic N released from newly thawed permafrost may be similar in magnitude to the increase in N mineralized by warmed soils in the middle of the profile. The total release of inorganic N from the soil profile during the simulated thaw process was twice the size of the observed increase in the foliar N pool observed at the manipulative experiment. Our findings suggest that increases in N availability are likely to outpace the N demand of tundra plants during the first 5 years of permafrost thaw and may increase C losses from surface soils as well as induce denitrification and leaching of N from these ecosystems.