Transferring soils from high- to low-elevation forests increases nitrogen cycling rates: climate change implications


Stephen C. Hart, fax +1/520-523-1080, e-mail


We assessed the potential impact of global warming resulting from a doubling of preindustrial atmospheric CO2 on soil net N transformations by transferring intact soil cores (0–15 cm) from a high-elevation old-growth forest to a forest about 800 m lower in elevation in the central Oregon Cascade Mountains, USA. The lower elevation site had mean annual air and soil (10-cm mineral soil depth) temperatures about 2.4 and 3.9 °C higher than the high-elevation site, respectively. Annual rates of soil net N mineralization and nitrification more than doubled in soil transferred to the low-elevation site (17.2–36.0 kg N ha–1 and 5.0–10.7 kg NO3–N ha–1, respectively). Leaching of inorganic N from the surface soil (in the absence of plant uptake) also increased. The reciprocal treatment (transferring soil cores from the low- to the high-elevation site) resulted in decreases of about 70, 80, and 65% in annual rates of net N mineralization, nitrification, and inorganic N leaching, respectively. Laboratory incubations of soils under conditions of similar temperature and soil water potential suggest that the quality of soil organic matter is higher at the high-elevation site. Similar in situ rates of soil net N transformations between the two sites occurred because the lower temperature counteracts the effects of greater substrate quantity and quality at the high elevation site. Our results support the hypothesis that high-elevation, old-growth forest soils in the central Cascades have higher C and N storage than their low-elevation analogues primarily because low temperatures limit net C and N mineralization rates at higher elevations.