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Keywords:

  • carbon;
  • climate change;
  • global warming;
  • mineralization;
  • nitrification;
  • nitrogen;
  • polar semidesert;
  • precipitation;
  • stable isotopes

Abstract

Rapid temperature and precipitation changes in High Arctic tundra ecosystems are altering the biogeochemical cycles of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N), but in ways that are difficult to predict. The challenge grows from the uncertainty of N cycle responses and the extent to which shifts in soil N are coupled with the C cycle and productivity of tundra systems. We used a long-term (since 2003) experiment of summer warming and supplemental summer water additions to a High Arctic ecosystem in NW Greenland, and applied a combination of discrete sampling and in situ soil core incubations to measure C and N pools and seasonal microbial processes that might control plant-available N. We hypothesized that elevated temperature and increased precipitation would stimulate microbial activity and net inorganic N mineralization, thereby increasing plant N-availability through the growing season. While we did find increased N mineralization rates under both global change scenarios, water addition also significantly increased net nitrification rates, loss of NO3-N via leaching, and lowered rates of labile organic N production. We also expected the chronic warming and watering would lead to long-term changes in soil N-cycling that would be reflected in soil δ15N values. We found that soil δ15N decreased under the different climate change scenarios. Our results suggest that temperature accelerates biological processes and existing C and N transformations, but moisture increases soil hydraulic connectivity and so alters the pathways, and changes the fate of the products of C and N transformations. In addition, our findings indicate that warmer, wetter High Arctic tundra will be cycling N and C in ways that may transform these landscapes in part leading to greater C sequestration, but simultaneously, N losses from the upper soil profile that may be transported to depth dissolved in water and or transported off site in lateral flow.