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Topography as a key factor driving atmospheric nitrogen exchanges in arctic terrestrial ecosystems

Stewart, Katherine J., Grogan, Paul, Coxson, Darwyn S., Siciliano, Steven D.
Soil biology & biochemistry 2014 v.70 pp. 96-112
Bryophyta, Cyanobacteria, annuals, carbon, climate change, climatic factors, denitrification, evapotranspiration, greenhouse gas emissions, landscapes, lichens, mineralization, nitrification, nitrogen, nitrous oxide, nutrient availability, prediction, soil crusts, soil temperature, soil water, terrestrial ecosystems, topography, Arctic region
Identifying the key drivers of nitrogen cycling processes that influence gaseous N exchanges in arctic ecosystems is essential for predicting the response of northern systems to changes in climatic conditions. In this review we examine pathways of N input (atmospheric N deposition and biological N2-fixation), cycling (N mineralization, immobilization and nitrification) and output (denitrification and nitrifier denitrification) found across the Arctic with a focus upon gaseous N exchanges in these ecosystems. Cyanobacteria are ubiquitous in the Arctic where they can be found in association with lichen or bryophytes and also as free-living components of biological soil crusts. N2-fixation by cyanobacteria in arctic ecosystems provides significant landscape-scale N inputs, and is an important N source for annual plant N uptake. The activity and extent of these cyanobacterial associations is driven primarily by moisture gradients associated with topography that determine nutrient availability. N2-fixation rates tend to be highest in relatively low topographical or microtopographical positions that are associated with soils of higher total N, mineralizable N, total carbon and organic carbon compared to higher topographical positions. Topography is also a key landscape-level driver of N mineralization, nitrification and denitrification processes through its control on factors such as soil moisture, soil temperature and nutrient availability. In general, while N mineralization rates are also higher in relatively low topographical or microtopographical positions, net nitrification and immobilization tend to be inhibited in these locations. This higher mineralization is linked to relatively high N2O emissions in lower lying areas in arctic landscapes since moisture and NH4 levels tend to be higher in those locations and are important controls on denitrification and nitrifier denitrification respectively. These soil topographical controls are modulated by arctic plants which may also have a direct, light-dependent role in N2O emissions, and undoubtedly play important indirect roles in gaseous N cycling via evapotranspiration effects. Our review indicates that arctic microscale and field topographic variation dominate patterns of atmospheric N inputs and losses in arctic ecosystems. However, further studies are needed to provide a better understanding of the associated driving factors on the multitude of processes that influence gaseous N exchange.