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No evidence that chronic nitrogen additions increase photosynthesis in mature sugar maple forests

Talhelm, A. F., Pregitzer, K. S., Burton, A. J.
Ecological applications 2011 v.21 no.7 pp. 2413-2424
Acer saccharum subsp. saccharum, atmospheric deposition, biomass, branches, canopy, carbon, carbon dioxide, forest growth, hardwood forests, leaf area index, leaves, nitrogen, nitrogen content, nutrient deficiencies, nutrient use efficiency, oxygen, photosynthesis, plant litter, sodium nitrate, stable isotopes, Midwestern United States
Atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition can increase forest growth. Because N deposition commonly increases foliar N concentrations, it is thought that this increase in forest growth is a consequence of enhanced leaf‐level photosynthesis. However, tests of this mechanism have been infrequent, and increases in photosynthesis have not been consistently observed in mature forests subject to chronic N deposition. In four mature northern hardwood forests in the north‐central United States, chronic N additions (30 kg N·ha⁻¹·yr⁻¹ as NaNO₃ for 14 years) have increased aboveground growth but have not affected canopy leaf biomass or leaf area index. In order to understand the mechanism behind the increases in growth, we hypothesized that the NO₃ ⁻ additions increased foliar N concentrations and leaf‐level photosynthesis in the dominant species in these forests (sugar maple, Acer saccharum). The NO₃ ⁻ additions significantly increased foliar N. However, there was no significant difference between the ambient and +NO₃ ⁻ treatments in two seasons (2006–2007) of instantaneous measurements of photosynthesis from either canopy towers or excised branches. In measurements on excised branches, photosynthetic nitrogen use efficiency (μmol CO₂·s⁻¹·g⁻¹ N) was significantly decreased (−13%) by NO₃ ⁻ additions. Furthermore, we found no consistent NO₃ ⁻ effect across all sites in either current foliage or leaf litter collected annually throughout the study (1993–2007) and analyzed for δ¹³C and δ¹⁸O, isotopes that can be used together to integrate changes in photosynthesis over time. We observed a small but significant NO₃ ⁻ effect on the average area and mass of individual leaves from the excised branches, but these differences varied by site and were countered by changes in leaf number. These photosynthesis and leaf area data together suggest that NO₃ ⁻ additions have not stimulated photosynthesis. There is no evidence that nutrient deficiencies have developed at these sites, so unlike other studies of photosynthesis in N‐saturated forests, we cannot attribute the lack of a stimulation of photosynthesis to nutrient limitations. Rather than increases in C assimilation, the observed increases in aboveground growth at our study sites are more likely due to shifts in C allocation.