Articles | Volume 10, issue 6
Research article
17 Jun 2013
Research article |  | 17 Jun 2013

Insights into mechanisms governing forest carbon response to nitrogen deposition: a model–data comparison using observed responses to nitrogen addition

R. Q. Thomas, G. B. Bonan, and C. L. Goodale

Abstract. In many forest ecosystems, nitrogen (N) deposition enhances plant uptake of carbon dioxide, thus reducing climate warming from fossil fuel emissions. Therefore, accurately modeling how forest carbon (C) sequestration responds to N deposition is critical for understanding how future changes in N availability will influence climate. Here, we use observations of forest C response to N inputs along N deposition gradients and at five temperate forest sites with fertilization experiments to test and improve a global biogeochemical model (CLM-CN 4.0). We show that the CLM-CN plant C growth response to N deposition was smaller than observed and the modeled response to N fertilization was larger than observed. A set of modifications to the CLM-CN improved the correspondence between model predictions and observational data (1) by increasing the aboveground C storage in response to historical N deposition (1850–2004) from 14 to 34 kg C per additional kg N added through deposition and (2) by decreasing the aboveground net primary productivity response to N fertilization experiments from 91 to 57 g C m−2 yr−1. Modeled growth response to N deposition was most sensitive to altering the processes that control plant N uptake and the pathways of N loss. The response to N deposition also increased with a more closed N cycle (reduced N fixation and N gas loss) and decreased when prioritizing microbial over plant uptake of soil inorganic N. The net effect of all the modifications to the CLM-CN resulted in greater retention of N deposition and a greater role of synergy between N deposition and rising atmospheric CO2 as a mechanism governing increases in temperate forest primary production over the 20th century. Overall, testing models with both the response to gradual increases in N inputs over decades (N deposition) and N pulse additions of N over multiple years (N fertilization) allows for greater understanding of the mechanisms governing C–N coupling.

Final-revised paper