Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Terrestrial Fertilization to Sequester CO2?

One of the main uncertainties in the global carbon cycle is measuring the amount of carbon bound up in ecosystems such as forests and grasslands. This Net Ecosystem Production (NEP) converts CO2 to plant material, detritus, and some animals. Most escapes back to the atmosphere as respired CO2, but some is sequestered in soil organic matter and trees.

Most ecosystems are Nitrogen limited because fertilization with nitrogen increases NEP. Interestingly, many ecosystems are already fertilized by Nitrogen deposition from drifting clouds of various nitrogen compounds emitted by urban areas, industry, and agriculture.

Nitrogen deposition increases productivity and decreases respiratory losses from decomposition (Hogberg). But how much? And how much is too much? Natural vegetation may be satiated/saturated with a low quantity of nitrogen, and any more would begin acidifying the soil, killing plants and washing away to pollute the watersheds.

Magnani et al attempt to answer some of these questions and measure the size of the "The human footprint in the carbon cycle of temperate and boreal forests" of Europe. They find that the amount of nitrogen deposited in European forests confers a huge increase in fertility; they find no sign of a decrease due to Nitrogen saturation.

However, their findings rested on a number of unpublished studies, and a flurry of correspondence questioned their main conclusions. De Shrivjer et al point out that just because NEP continues to increase with increasing Nitrogen deposition, this doesn't mean that the forest ecosystems aren't loosing nitrogen as runoff. Indeed, it makes sense that at very high applications of fertilizer an increasing fraction would be wasted. Many farmers have to contend with the problem that, beyond a certain point, a doubling of Nitrogen fertilizer may confer only an incremental increase in crop productivity, while vastly increasing the amount of Nitrogen that washes off.

de Vries present a more central problem in Magnani et al's results: according to Magnani's data correlation, for every unit of Nitrogen applied to European forests, 470 units of carbon are sequestered. Yet the only plant material with a C:N ratio that high is pure xylem wood, and it seems unlikely that all of the deposited nitrogen is being used to grow tree stems. Furthermore, de Vries et al find that Magnani et al failed to control for a range of other variables that could affect forest NEP. de Vries reanalyze that portion of Magnani's data that is publicly available and find a more plausible -- and vastly reduced -- C:N ratio of 20 to 40 (20-40 units carbon for every unit nitrogen).

It doesn't end there, though. Magnani et al respond that they agree with De Shrivjer, but refute de Vries. Magnani point out differences between wet and dry deposition, to argue that their stoichiometric ratio is really closer to 175-225. They claim that this ratio is not implausible, even though it is much higher than actual forest fertilization experiments (Nadelhoffer). They explain this difference by suggesting that up to 70% of the actual nitrogen deposited is absorbed by leaves, whereas the forest fertilization experiments applied nitrogen to the soil. (Nadelhoffer).

{[It is not clear to me what the consensus is on how much nitrogen can be absorbed by the canopy, or why wet versus dry deposition matters. }

News and Views: Hogberg P. Environmental science: Nitrogen impacts on forest carbon. Nature. 2007 June 14;447(7146):781-782.
Original Paper: Magnani F, Mencuccini M, Borghetti M, Berbigier P, Berninger F, Delzon S, Grelle A, Hari P, Jarvis PG, Kolari P, et al. The human footprint in the carbon cycle of temperate and boreal forests. Nature. 2007 June 14;447(7146):849-851.
Questions: De Schrijver A, Verheyen K, Mertens J, Staelens J, Wuyts K, Muys B. Nitrogen saturation and net ecosystem production. Nature. 2008 February 14;451(7180):E1.
More Questions: de Vries W, Solberg S, Dobbertin M, Sterba H, Laubhahn D, Reinds GJ, Nabuurs G-J, Gundersen P, Sutton MA. Ecologically implausible carbon response? Nature. 2008 February 14;451(7180):E1-E3.
Response:Magnani F, Mencuccini M, Borghetti M, Berninger F, Delzon S, Grelle A, Hari P, Jarvis PG, Kolari P, Kowalski AS, et al. Magnani et al. reply. Nature. 2008 February 14;451(7180):E3-E4.
More Information: Nadelhoffer, K. J. et al. Nitrogen deposition makes a minor contribution to carbon sequestration in temperate forests. Nature 398, 145–148 (1999)
Follow Up: SUTTON MA, SIMPSON D, LEVY PE, SMITH RI, REIS S, Van OIJEN M, De VRIES WIM. Uncertainties in the relationship between atmospheric nitrogen deposition and forest carbon sequestration. Global Change Biology. 2008 September 1;14(9):2057-2063.

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