Articles | Volume 10, issue 3
Biogeosciences, 10, 1693–1705, 2013
Biogeosciences, 10, 1693–1705, 2013

Research article 13 Mar 2013

Research article | 13 Mar 2013

Geomorphic control on the δ15N of mountain forests

R. G. Hilton1, A. Galy2, A. J. West3, N. Hovius2, and G. G. Roberts4 R. G. Hilton et al.
  • 1Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK
  • 2Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB2 3EQ, UK
  • 3Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA
  • 4Bullard Laboratories, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB3 0EZ, UK

Abstract. Mountain forests are subject to high rates of physical erosion which can export particulate nitrogen from ecosystems. However, the impact of geomorphic processes on nitrogen budgets remains poorly constrained. We have used the elemental and isotopic composition of soil and plant organic matter to investigate nitrogen cycling in the mountain forest of Taiwan, from 24 sites with distinct geomorphic (topographic slope) and climatic (precipitation, temperature) characteristics. The organic carbon to nitrogen ratio of soil organic matter decreased with soil 14C age, providing constraint on average rates of nitrogen loss using a mass balance model. Model predictions suggest that present day estimates of nitrogen deposition exceed contemporary and historic nitrogen losses. We found ∼6‰ variability in the stable isotopic composition (δ15N) of soil and plants which was not related to soil 14C age or climatic conditions. Instead, δ15N was significantly, negatively correlated with topographic slope. Using the mass balance model, we demonstrate that the correlation can be explained by an increase in nitrogen loss by non-fractioning pathways on steeper slopes, where physical erosion most effectively removes particulate nitrogen. Published data from forests on steep slopes are consistent with the correlation. Based on our dataset and these observations, we hypothesise that variable physical erosion rates can significantly influence soil δ15N, and suggest particulate nitrogen export is a major, yet underappreciated, loss term in the nitrogen budget of mountain forests.

Final-revised paper