Articles | Volume 13, issue 12
Research article
17 Jun 2016
Research article |  | 17 Jun 2016

Ecological controls on N2O emission in surface litter and near-surface soil of a managed grassland: modelling and measurements

Robert F. Grant, Albrecht Neftel, and Pierluigi Calanca

Abstract. Large variability in N2O emissions from managed grasslands may occur because most emissions originate in surface litter or near-surface soil where variability in soil water content (θ) and temperature (Ts) is greatest. To determine whether temporal variability in θ and Ts of surface litter and near-surface soil could explain this in N2O emissions, a simulation experiment was conducted with ecosys, a comprehensive mathematical model of terrestrial ecosystems in which processes governing N2O emissions were represented at high temporal and spatial resolution. Model performance was verified by comparing N2O emissions, CO2 and energy exchange, and θ and Ts modelled by ecosys with those measured by automated chambers, eddy covariance (EC) and soil sensors on an hourly timescale during several emission events from 2004 to 2009 in an intensively managed pasture at Oensingen, Switzerland. Both modelled and measured events were induced by precipitation following harvesting and subsequent fertilizing or manuring. These events were brief (2–5 days) with maximum N2O effluxes that varied from  <  1 mgNm−2h−1 in early spring and autumn to  >  3 mgNm−2h−1 in summer. Only very small emissions were modelled or measured outside these events. In the model, emissions were generated almost entirely in surface litter or near-surface (0–2 cm) soil, at rates driven by N availability with fertilization vs. N uptake with grassland regrowth and by O2 supply controlled by litter and soil wetting relative to O2 demand from microbial respiration. In the model, NOx availability relative to O2 limitation governed both the reduction of more oxidized electron acceptors to N2O and the reduction of N2O to N2, so that the magnitude of N2O emissions was not simply related to surface and near-surface θ and Ts. Modelled N2O emissions were found to be sensitive to defoliation intensity and timing which controlled plant N uptake and soil θ and Ts prior to and during emission events. Reducing leaf area index (LAI) remaining after defoliation to half that under current practice and delaying harvesting by 5 days raised modelled N2O emissions by as much as 80 % during subsequent events and by an average of 43 % annually. Modelled N2O emissions were also found to be sensitive to surface soil properties. Increasing near-surface bulk density by 10 % raised N2O emissions by as much as 100 % during emission events and by an average of 23 % annually. Relatively small spatial variation in management practices and soil surface properties could therefore cause the large spatial variation in N2O emissions commonly found in field studies. The global warming potential from annual N2O emissions in this intensively managed grassland largely offset those from net C uptake in both modelled and field experiments. However, model results indicated that this offset could be adversely affected by suboptimal land management and soil properties.

Short summary
The magnitude of N2O emissions from managed grasslands depends on weather and on harvesting and fertilizer practices. Modelling provides a means to predict these emissions under diverse weather and management types. In this modelling study, we show that N2O emissions depend on how weather affects temperatures and water contents of surface litter and near-surface soil. N2O emissions modelled from the grassland were increased by suboptimal harvesting practices, fertilizer timing and soil properties.
Final-revised paper