Abiotic versus biotic controls on soil nitrogen cycling in drylands along a 3200 km transect
- 1CAS Key Laboratory of Forest Ecology and Management, Institute of Applied Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shenyang, 110016, China
- 2Department of Biological Sciences, Binghamton University-State University of New York, Binghamton, NY 13902, USA
- 3State Key Laboratory of Atmospheric Boundary Layer Physics and Atmospheric Chemistry (LAPC), Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100029, China
- 4Qingyuan Forest CERN, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shenyang, 110016, China
- *These authors contributed equally to this work.
Abstract. Nitrogen (N) cycling in drylands under changing climate is not well understood. Our understanding of N cycling over larger scales to date relies heavily on the measurement of bulk soil N, and the information about internal soil N transformations remains limited. The 15N natural abundance (δ15N) of ammonium and nitrate can serve as a proxy record for the N processes in soils. To better understand the patterns and mechanisms of N cycling in drylands, we collected soils along a 3200 km transect at about 100 km intervals in northern China, with mean annual precipitation (MAP) ranging from 36 to 436 mm. We analyzed N pools and δ15N of ammonium, dual isotopes (15N and 18O) of nitrate, and the microbial gene abundance associated with soil N transformations. We found that N status and its driving factors were different above and below a MAP threshold of 100 mm. In the arid zone with MAP below 100 mm, soil inorganic N accumulated, with a large fraction being of atmospheric origin, and ammonia volatilization was strong in soils with high pH. In addition, the abundance of microbial genes associated with soil N transformations was low. In the semiarid zone with MAP above 100 mm, soil inorganic N concentrations were low and were controlled mainly by biological processes (e.g., plant uptake and denitrification). The preference for soil ammonium over nitrate by the dominant plant species may enhance the possibility of soil nitrate losses via denitrification. Overall, our study suggests that a shift from abiotic to biotic controls on soil N biogeochemistry under global climate changes would greatly affect N losses, soil N availability, and other N transformation processes in these drylands in China.