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Coniferous coverage as well as catchment steepness influences local stream nitrate concentrations within a nitrogen-saturated forest in central Japan

Watanabe, Mirai, Miura, Shingo, Hasegawa, Shun, Koshikawa, Masami K., Takamatsu, Takejiro, Kohzu, Ayato, Imai, Akio, Hayashi, Seiji
The Science of the total environment 2018 v.636 pp. 539-546
base flow, ecosystems, environmental factors, forested watersheds, leaching, managers, montane forests, nitrates, nitrogen, regression analysis, risk reduction, streams, topography, variance, Japan
High concentrations of nitrate have been detected in streams flowing from nitrogen-saturated forests; however, the spatial variations of nitrate leaching within those forests and its causes remain poorly explored. The aim of this study is to evaluate the influences of catchment topography and coniferous coverage on stream nitrate concentrations in a nitrogen-saturated forest. We measured nitrate concentrations in the baseflow of headwater streams at 40 montane forest catchments on Mount Tsukuba in central Japan, at three-month intervals for 1 year, and investigated their relationship with catchment topography and with coniferous coverage. Although stream nitrate concentrations varied from 0.5 to 3.0 mgN L−1, those in 31 catchments consistently exceeded 1 mgN L−1, indicating that this forest had experienced nitrogen saturation. A classification and regression tree analysis with multiple environmental factors showed that the mean slope gradient and coniferous coverage were the best and second best, respectively, at explaining inter-catchment variance of stream nitrate concentrations. This analysis suggested that the catchments with steep topography and high coniferous coverage tend to have high nitrate concentrations. Moreover, in the three-year observation period for five adjacent catchments, the two catchments with relatively higher coniferous coverage consistently had higher stream nitrate concentrations. Thus, the spatial variations in stream nitrate concentrations were primarily regulated by catchment steepness and, to a lesser extent, coniferous coverage in this nitrogen-saturated forest. Our results suggest that a decrease in coniferous coverage could potentially contribute to a reduction in nitrate leaching from this nitrogen-saturated forest, and consequently reduce the risk of nitrogen overload for the downstream ecosystems. This information will allow land managers and researchers to develop improved management plans for this and similar forests in Japan and elsewhere.