We report changes in nitrogen cycling in Florida scrub oak in response to elevated atmospheric CO2 during the first 14 months of experimental treatment. Elevated CO2 stimulated above-ground growth, nitrogen mass, and root nodule production of the nitrogen-fixing vine, Galactia elliottii Nuttall. During this period, elevated CO2 reduced rates of gross nitrogen mineralization in soil, and resulted in lower recovery of nitrate on resin lysimeters. Elevated CO2 did not alter nitrogen in the soil microbial biomass, but increased the specific rate of ammonium immobilization (NH4+ immobilized per unit microbial N) measured over a 24-h period. Increased carbon input to soil through greater root growth combined with a decrease in the quality of that carbon in elevated CO2 best explains these changes.
These results demonstrate that atmospheric CO2 concentration influences both the internal cycling of nitrogen (mineralization, immobilization, and nitrification) as well as the processes that regulate total ecosystem nitrogen mass (nitrogen fixation and nitrate leaching) in Florida coastal scrub oak. If these changes in nitrogen cycling are sustained, they could cause long-term feedbacks to the growth responses of plants to elevated CO2. Greater nitrogen fixation and reduced leaching could stimulate nitrogen-limited plant growth by increasing the mass of labile nitrogen in the ecosystem. By contrast, reduced nitrogen mineralization and increased immobilization will restrict the supply rate of plant-available nitrogen, potentially reducing plant growth. Thus, the net feedback to plant growth will depend on the balance of these effects through time.