Increased nitrate availability in the soil of a mixed mature temperate forest subjected to elevated CO2 concentration (canopy FACE)


Correspondence: Dr Patrick Schleppi, tel. + 41 44 739 24 22, fax + 41 44 739 22 15, e-mail:


In a mature temperate forest in Hofstetten, Switzerland, deciduous tree canopies were subjected to a free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) for a period of 8 years. The effect of this treatment on the availability of nitrogen (N) in the soil was assessed along three transects across the experimental area, one under Fagus sylvatica, one under Quercus robur and Q. petraea and one under Carpinus betulus. Nitrate, ammonium and dissolved organic N (DON) were analysed in soil solution obtained with suction cups. Nitrate and ammonium were also captured in buried ion-exchange resin bags. These parameters were related to the local intensity of the FACE treatment as measured from the 13C depletion of dissolved inorganic carbon in the soil solution. Over the 8 years of experiment, the CO2 enrichment reduced DON concentrations, did not affect ammonium, but induced higher nitrate concentrations, both in soil solution and resin bags. In the nitrate captured in the resin bags, the natural abundance of the isotope 15N increased strongly. This indicates that the CO2 enrichment accelerated net nitrification, probably as an effect of the higher soil moisture resulting from the reduced transpiration of the CO2-enriched trees. It is also possible that N mineralization was enhanced by root exudates (priming effect) or that the uptake of inorganic N by these trees decreased slightly as the result of a reduced N demand for fine-root growth. In this mature deciduous forest, we did not observe any progressive N limitation due to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations; on the contrary, we observed an enhanced N availability over the 8 years of our measurements. This may, together with the global warming projected, exacerbate problems related to N saturation and nitrate leaching, although it is uncertain how long the observed trends will last in the future.