Regulation of Nitrate-N Release from Temperate Forests: A Test of the N Flushing Hypothesis


  • I. F. Creed,

  • L. E. Band,

  • N. W. Foster,

  • I. K. Morrison,

  • J. A. Nicolson,

  • R. S. Semkin,

  • D. S. Jeffries


During the past decade, significant spatial and temporal variability in the release of nitrate-nitrogen (N) from catchments in a sugar maple forest in central Ontario was observed. To explain this variability, we tested the flushing hypothesis [Hornberger et al., 1994], where, when the soil saturation deficit is high, N accumulates in the upper layers of the soil and, as the soil saturation deficit decreases, the formation of a saturated subsurface layer flushes N from the upper layers of the soil into the stream. We used the Regional Hydro-Ecological Simulation System to simulate water, carbon, and N dynamics. A N flushing index was modeled as S/S30, the ratio of the current day saturation deficit to the previous 30-day average saturation deficit. A N source index was modeled as the ratio of N supply/demand. The relationship between the simulated N indices and the observed release of N indicated two mechanisms for the release of N from catchments: (1) a N flushing mechanism, where the N-enriched upper layer of the soil is flushed, after a period of low demand for N by the forest (e.g., during spring snowmelt and autumn stormflow, the water table rising into previously unsaturated parts of a N-enriched soil profile) or after a period of high demand for N by the forest (e.g., during summer droughts, the water table rising into previously saturated parts of a N-impoverished soil profile following a period of enhanced rates of nitrification); and (2) a N draining mechanism, where spring snowmelt recharge of the groundwater translocates N from the upper layer of the soil into deeper hydrological flow pathways that are released slowly over the year.