Stable nitrogen and carbon pools in grassland soils of variable texture and carbon content

Publication Type:

Journal Article


ECOSYSTEMS, SPRINGER, Volume 5, Number 5, 233 SPRING ST, NEW YORK, NY 10013 USA, p.461-471 (2002)


(15)nitrogen, Great Plains, laboratory incubation, nitrogen retention, soil organic matter, tracer experiment


Nitrogen (N) inputs to many terrestrial ecosystems are increasing, and most of these inputs are sequestered in soil organic matter within 1-3 years. Rapid (minutes to days) immobilization focused previous N retention research on actively cycling plant, microbial, and inorganic N pools. However, most ecosystem N resides in soil organic matter that is not rapidly cycled. This large, stable soil N pool may be an important sink for elevated N inputs. In this study, we measured the capacity of grassland soils to retain (15)N in a pool that was not mineralized by microorganisms during 1-year laboratory incubations (called ``the stable pool''). We added two levels (2.5 and 50 g N m(-2)) of (15)NH(4)(+) tracer to 60 field plots on coarse- and fine-textured soils along a soil carbon (C) gradient from Texas to Montana, USA. We hypothesized that stable tracer 15N retention and stable bulk soil (native + tracer) N pools would be positively correlated with soil clay and C content and stable soil C pools (C not respired during the incubation). Two growing seasons after the (15)N addition, soils (0- to 20-cm depth) contained 71% and 26% of the tracer added to low- and high-N treatments, respectively. In both N treatments, 50% of the tracer retained in soil was stable. Total soil C (r(2) = 0.72), stable soil C (r(2) = 0.68), and soil clay content (r(2) = 0.27) were correlated with stable bulk soil N pools, but not with stable (15)N retention. We conclude that on annual time scales, substantial quantities of N are incorporated into stable organic pools that are not readily susceptible to microbial remineralization or subsequent plant uptake, leaching losses, or gaseous losses. Stable N formation may be an important pathway by which rapid soil N immobilization translates into long-term N retention.