Articles | Volume 13, issue 18
Reviews and syntheses
28 Sep 2016
Reviews and syntheses |  | 28 Sep 2016

Reviews and syntheses: measuring ecosystem nitrogen status – a comparison of proxies

Maya Almaraz and Stephen Porder

Abstract. There are many proxies used to measure nitrogen (N) availability in watersheds, but the degree to which they do (or do not) correlate within a watershed has not been systematically addressed. We surveyed the literature for intact forest or grassland watersheds globally, in which several metrics of nitrogen availability have been measured. Our metrics included the following: foliar δ15N, soil δ15N, net nitrification, net N mineralization, and the ratio of dissolved inorganic to organic nitrogen (DIN : DON) in soil solution and streams. We were particularly interested in whether terrestrial and stream based proxies for N availability were correlated where they were measured in the same place. Not surprisingly, the strongest correlation (Kendall's τ) was between net nitrification and N mineralization (τ  =  0.71, p < 0.0001). Net nitrification and N mineralization were each correlated with foliar and soil δ15N (p < 0.05). Foliar and soil δ15N were more tightly correlated in tropical sites (τ  =  0.68, p < 0.0001), than in temperate sites (τ  =  0.23, p  =  0.02). The only significant correlations between terrestrial- and water-based metrics were those of net nitrification (τ  =  0.48, p  =  0.01) and N mineralization (τ  =  0.69, p  =  0.0001) with stream DIN : DON. The relationship between stream DIN : DON with both net nitrification and N mineralization was significant only in temperate, but not tropical regions. To our surprise, we did not find a significant correlation between soil δ15N and stream DIN : DON, despite the fact that both have been used to infer spatially or temporally integrated N status. Given that both soil δ15N and stream DIN : DON are used to infer long-term N status, their lack of correlation in watersheds merits further investigation.

Short summary
Nitrogen availability influences ecosystem properties and limits productivity in much of the world. We compared a variety of proxies used to assess nitrogen status to see if they provide consistent indications of nitrogen availability. We found that although terrestrial metrics correlated with one another, terrestrial and water-based metrics were not correlated. Given that many authors have suggested these proxies give insight into ecosystem nitrogen status, this result merits further research.
Final-revised paper