Atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition is a recognized threat to plant diversity in temperate and northern parts of Europe and North America. This paper assesses evidence from field experiments for N deposition effects and thresholds for terrestrial plant diversity protection across a latitudinal range of main categories of ecosystems, from arctic and boreal systems to tropical forests. Current thinking on the mechanisms of N deposition effects on plant diversity, the global distribution of G200 ecoregions, and current and future (2030) estimates of atmospheric N-deposition rates are then used to identify the risks to plant diversity in all major ecosystem types now and in the future.
This synthesis paper clearly shows that N accumulation is the main driver of changes to species composition across the whole range of different ecosystem types by driving the competitive interactions that lead to composition change and/or making conditions unfavorable for some species. Other effects such as direct toxicity of nitrogen gases and aerosols, long-term negative effects of increased ammonium and ammonia availability, soil-mediated effects of acidification, and secondary stress and disturbance are more ecosystem- and site-specific and often play a supporting role. N deposition effects in mediterranean ecosystems have now been identified, leading to a first estimate of an effect threshold. Importantly, ecosystems thought of as not N limited, such as tropical and subtropical systems, may be more vulnerable in the regeneration phase, in situations where heterogeneity in N availability is reduced by atmospheric N deposition, on sandy soils, or in montane areas.
Critical loads are effect thresholds for N deposition, and the critical load concept has helped European governments make progress toward reducing N loads on sensitive ecosystems. More needs to be done in Europe and North America, especially for the more sensitive ecosystem types, including several ecosystems of high conservation importance.
The results of this assessment show that the vulnerable regions outside Europe and North America which have not received enough attention are ecoregions in eastern and southern Asia (China, India), an important part of the mediterranean ecoregion (California, southern Europe), and in the coming decades several subtropical and tropical parts of Latin America and Africa. Reductions in plant diversity by increased atmospheric N deposition may be more widespread than first thought, and more targeted studies are required in low background areas, especially in the G200 ecoregions.