Sinks for nitrogen inputs in terrestrial ecosystems: A meta-analysis of 15N tracer field studies

P. H. Templer, M. C. Mack, F. S. Chapin, L. M. Christenson, J. E. Compton, H. D. Crook, W. S. Currie, C. J. Curtis, D. B. Dail, C. M. D'Antonio, B. A. Emmett, H. E. Epstein, C. L. Goodale, P. Gundersen, S. E. Hobbie, K. Holland, D. U. Hooper, B. A. Hungate, S. Lamontagne, K. J. NadelhofferC. W. Osenberg, S. S. Perakis, P. Schleppi, J. Schimel, I. K. Schmidt, M. Sommerkorn, J. Spoelstra, A. Tietema, W. W. Wessel, D. R. Zak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

180 Scopus citations


Effects of anthropogenic nitrogen (N) deposition and the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to store carbon (C) depend in part on the amount of N retained in the system and its partitioning among plant and soil pools. We conducted a meta-analysis of studies at 48 sites across four continents that used enriched 15N isotope tracers in order to synthesize information about total ecosystem N retention (i.e., total ecosystem 15N recovery in plant and soil pools) across natural systems and N partitioning among ecosystem pools. The greatest recoveries of ecosystem 15N tracer occurred in shrublands (mean, 89.5%) and wetlands (84.8%) followed by forests (74.9%) and grasslands (51.8%). In the short term (<1 week after 15N tracer application), total ecosystem 15N recovery was negatively correlated with fine-root and soil 15N natural abundance, and organic soil C and N concentration but was positively correlated with mean annual temperature and mineral soil C:N. In the longer term (3-18 months after 15N tracer application), total ecosystem 15N retention was negatively correlated with foliar natural-abundance 15N but was positively correlated with mineral soil C and N concentration and C: N, showing that plant and soil natural-abundance 15N and soil C:N are good indicators of total ecosystem N retention. Foliar N concentration was not significantly related to ecosystem 15N tracer recovery, suggesting that plant N status is not a good predictor of total ecosystem N retention. Because the largest ecosystem sinks for 15N tracer were below ground in forests, shrublands, and grasslands, we conclude that growth enhancement and potential for increased C storage in aboveground biomass from atmospheric N deposition is likely to be modest in these ecosystems. Total ecosystem 15N recovery decreased with N fertilization, with an apparent threshold fertilization rate of 46 kg N·ha-1·yr -1 above which most ecosystems showed net losses of applied 15N tracer in response to N fertilizer addition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1816-1829
Number of pages14
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2012


  • Atmospheric nitrogen deposition
  • Carbon storage
  • Data synthesis
  • Meta-analysis
  • Nitrogen retention and loss
  • Stable isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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