Spatial patterns of soil nitrification and nitrate export from forested headwaters in the northeastern United States

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Abstract

[1] Nitrogen export from small forested watersheds is known to be affected by N deposition but with high regional variability. We studied 10 headwater catchments in the northeastern United States across a gradient of N deposition (5.4 − 9.4 kg ha−1 yr−1) to determine if soil nitrification rates could explain differences in stream water NO3 export. Average annual export of two years (October 2002 through September 2004) varied from 0.1 kg NO3-N ha−1 yr−1 at Cone Pond watershed in New Hampshire to 5.1 kg ha−1 yr−1 at Buck Creek South in the western Adirondack Mountains of New York. Potential net nitrification rates and relative nitrification (fraction of inorganic N as NO3) were measured in Oa or A soil horizons at 21–130 sampling points throughout each watershed. Stream NO3 export was positively related to nitrification rates (r2 = 0.34, p = 0.04) and the relative nitrification (r2 = 0.37, p = 0.04). These relationships were much improved by restricting consideration to the 6 watersheds with a higher number of rate measurements (59–130) taken in transects parallel to the streams (r2 of 0.84 and 0.70 for the nitrification rate and relative nitrification, respectively). Potential nitrification rates were also a better predictor of NO3 export when data were limited to either the 6 sampling points closest to the watershed outlet (r2 = 0.75) or sampling points <250 m from the watershed outlet (r2 = 0.68). The basal area of conifer species at the sampling plots was negatively related to NO3export. These spatial relationships found here suggest a strong influence of near-stream and near-watershed-outlet soils on measured stream NO3 export.

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