Rates of nitrogen (N) deposition are increasing in industrialized and rapidly developing nations. Simulated N deposition suppresses plant litter decay rates, in particular for low quality (high lignin) litter. Litter quality is a primary driver of litter decomposition; however, it is not clear how changes in litter quality caused by long-term ecosystem exposure to chronic N additions interact with altered soil N-availability to influence litter decay dynamics. To document the effects of simulated N deposition on litter quality, we conducted a meta-analysis of available litter nutrient data from simulated N deposition experiments in temperate forests. To directly test whether changes in litter quality caused by N deposition affect decay rates, we also conducted a reciprocal litterbag study in an existing N addition experiment, where a northern hardwood forest has been exposed to simulated N deposition for more than 20 years. The experiment enabled us to disentangle the effects of N additions, litter quality, and their interactions on litter decay dynamics. We measured litter mass loss and extracellular enzyme activities after one and two years of decomposition. The meta-analysis demonstrated that simulated N deposition causes decreases of leaf Al, B, Ca, Mg, Mn, P, and Zn concentrations, and increased leaf N concentrations. Moreover, higher cumulative amounts of simulated N deposition result in greater decreases of leaf Ca and Mn concentrations. In the field experiment, litter originally collected from N-enriched plots exhibited similar N-induced nutrient changes as observed in our meta-analysis and also had lower lignolytic enzyme activities and decay rates than litter collected from control plots. The decreased litter decay rates observed with simulated N deposition were a result of the combined effects of the N fertilization itself and the historical effects of N deposition on tree litter chemistry. The data suggest that changes in litter quality caused directly by long-term N enrichment reinforce the negative effects of simulated N deposition on litter decay, particularly for high lignin species. The slowed decay associated with changes in litter quality caused by N enrichment itself may partly explain the accumulation of organic matter previously observed at ours and at other simulated N deposition experiments.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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© 2015 van Diepen et al.


This is an open access article published by Wiley in Ecosphere in 2015, available online: