The potential effects of nitrogen deposition on fine-root production in forest ecosystems



Temperate forests are recipients of anthropogenic nitrogen (N) deposition. Because growth in these ecosystems is often limited by N availability, elevated N inputs from the atmosphere can influence above- and belowground production in forests. Although fine-root production is the largest component of belowground production in forests, it is unclear whether or how increases in Navailability to forest trees accompanying increased N deposition might influence fine-root growth. Uncertainties as to how fine-root dynamics (i.e. production and turnover) vary in relation to soil N availability contribute to this problem. Although fine-root biomass typically decreases along soil N availability gradients in forests, it is unclear whether fine-root production and turnover also decrease along these gradients. Here, four possible relationships between fine-root turnover, fine-root production, and forest soil N availability are evaluated to develop a general hypothesis about changes in rooting dynamics that might accompany increases in N deposition. The four possible relationships are as follows. (1) Fine-root turnover rates do not systematically change with N availability in forest soils. If this is true, then fine-root production rates decrease with fine-root biomass in relation to soil N availability, and increased N deposition could lead to decreased fine-root production in forests. (2) Decreases in photosynthate allocation belowground along N availability gradients will function to slow fine-root turnover (or increase life span) as N availability increases with N deposition, thereby dramatically decreasing fine-root production. (3) Fine-root production might increase with N availability even though fine-root biomass typically decreases with N availability. This could occur if fine-root metabolism and turnover increase (life span decreases) with soil N supply. Increases in fine-root production accompanying increases in N availability, if large enough, could result in constant proportions of forest production being allocated to fine roots as soil N availability increases with N deposition. (4) Although fine-root turnover and production might both increase as N becomes more available to tree roots, the proportional allocation of total primary production to fine roots could decrease. Identifying the most likely of these four possibilities requires intersite comparisons of forest root dynamics along gradients of soil N availability and N deposition. Collective results of studies that use sequential sampling of fine-root biomass to estimate production suggest that fine-root turnover and production either; do not vary systematically, or that they decrease as N availability increases. By contrast, studies using ecosystem C or N budgets suggest that fine-root turnover and production both increase with N availability and that similar increases might be expected with elevated N deposition. It is argued here that assumptions underlying most biomass-based estimates of fine-root production are more suspect than are assumptions underlying element budget-based estimates. If so, it is likely that N deposition will function to decrease forest fine-root biomass but to stimulate fine-root turnover and production. However, increases in fine- root turnover and production could eventually decrease if chronically elevated N deposition leads to forest stand mortality.