No evidence that chronic nitrogen additions increase photosynthesis in mature sugar maple forests

TitleNo evidence that chronic nitrogen additions increase photosynthesis in mature sugar maple forests
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsTalhelm AF, Pregitzer KS, Burton AJames
JournalEcological Applications
Pagination2413 - 2424
Date Published10/2011

Atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition can increase forest growth. Because N deposition commonly increases foliar N concentrations, it is thought that this increase in forest growth is a consequence of enhanced leaf-level photosynthesis. However, tests of this mechanism have been infrequent, and increases in photosynthesis have not been consistently observed in mature forests subject to chronic N deposition. In four mature northern hardwood forests in the north-central United States, chronic N additions (30 kg N·ha−1·yr−1 as NaNO3 for 14 years) have increased aboveground growth but have not affected canopy leaf biomass or leaf area index. In order to understand the mechanism behind the increases in growth, we hypothesized that the NO3− additions increased foliar N concentrations and leaf-level photosynthesis in the dominant species in these forests (sugar maple, Acer saccharum). The NO3− additions significantly increased foliar N. However, there was no significant difference between the ambient and +NO3− treatments in two seasons (2006–2007) of instantaneous measurements of photosynthesis from either canopy towers or excised branches. In measurements on excised branches, photosynthetic nitrogen use efficiency (μmol CO2·s−1·g−1 N) was significantly decreased (−13%) by NO3− additions. Furthermore, we found no consistent NO3− effect across all sites in either current foliage or leaf litter collected annually throughout the study (1993–2007) and analyzed for δ13C and δ18O, isotopes that can be used together to integrate changes in photosynthesis over time. We observed a small but significant NO3− effect on the average area and mass of individual leaves from the excised branches, but these differences varied by site and were countered by changes in leaf number. These photosynthesis and leaf area data together suggest that NO3− additions have not stimulated photosynthesis. There is no evidence that nutrient deficiencies have developed at these sites, so unlike other studies of photosynthesis in N-saturated forests, we cannot attribute the lack of a stimulation of photosynthesis to nutrient limitations. Rather than increases in C assimilation, the observed increases in aboveground growth at our study sites are more likely due to shifts in C allocation.