Long-term nitrogen deposition linked to reduced water use efficiency in forests with low phosphorus availability

Zhiqun Huang, Bao Liu, Murray Davis, Jordi Sardans, Josep Peñuelas, Sharon Billings

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    © 2015 New Phytologist Trust. The impact of long-term nitrogen (N) deposition is under-studied in phosphorus (P)-limited subtropical forests. We exploited historically collected herbarium specimens to investigate potential physiological responses of trees in three subtropical forests representing an urban-to-rural gradient, across which N deposition has probably varied over the past six decades. We measured foliar [N] and [P] and stable carbon (δ13C), oxygen (δ18O) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotopic compositions in tissue from herbarium specimens of plant species collected from 1947 to 2014. Foliar [N] and N : P increased, and δ15N and [P] decreased in the two forests close to urban centers. Consistent with recent studies demonstrating that N deposition in the region is 15N-depleted, these data suggest that the increased foliar [N] and N : P, and decreased [P], may be attributable to atmospheric deposition and associated enhancement of P limitation. Estimates of intrinsic water use efficiency calculated from foliar δ13C decreased by c. 30% from the 1950s to 2014, contrasting with multiple studies investigating similar parameters in N-limited forests. This effect may reflect decreased photosynthesis, as suggested by a conceptual model of foliar δ13C and δ18O. Long-term N deposition may exacerbate P limitation and mitigate projected increases in carbon stocks driven by elevated CO2 in forests on P-limited soils.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)431-442
    JournalNew Phytologist (Print)
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2016


    • Herbarium specimens
    • Nitrogen : phosphorus (N : P)
    • P-limited soils
    • δ C 13
    • δ N 15


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