Large increases in nitrogen (N) inputs to terrestrial ecosystems typically have small effects on immediate N outputs because most N is sequestered in soil organic matter. We hypothesized that soil organic N storage and the asynchrony between N inputs and outputs result from rapid accumulation of N in stable soil organic pools. We used a successional sequence on floodplains of the Tanana River near Fairbanks, Alaska to assess rates of stable N accumulation in soils ranging from 1 to 500+ years old. One-year laboratory incubations with repeated leaching separated total soil N into labile (defined as inorganic N leached) and stable (defined as total minus labile N) pools. Stable N pools increased faster (∼ 2 g N m-2 yr-1) than labile N (∼ 0.4 g N m-2 yr-1) pools during the first 50 years of primary succession; labile N then plateaued while stable and total N continued to increase. Soil C pools showed similar trends, and stable N was correlated with stable C (r2 = 0.95). From 84 to 95% of soil N was stable during our incubations. Over successional time, the labile N pool declined as a proportion of total N, but remained large on an aerial basis (up to 38 g N m-2). The stoichiometry of stable soil N changed over successional time; C:N ratios increased from 10 to 22 over 275 years (r2 = 0.69). A laboratory 15N addition experiment showed that soils had the capacity to retain much more N than accumulated naturally during succession. Our results suggest that most soil N is retained in a stable organic pool that can accumulate rapidly but is not readily accessible to microbial mineralization. Because stable soil organic matter and total ecosystem organic matter have flexible stoichiometry, net ecosystem production may be a poor predictor of N retention on annual time scales.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Environmental Chemistry
- Water Science and Technology
- Earth-Surface Processes