Changing C-N interactions in the forest floor under chronic N deposition: Implications for forest C sequestration

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Atmospheric N deposition has far-reaching impacts on forest ecosystems, including on-site impacts such as soil acidification, fertilization, and nutrient imbalances, and off-site environmental impacts such as nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emission. Although chronic N deposition has been believed to lead to forest N saturation, recent evidence suggests that N retention capacity, particularly in the forest floor, can be surprisingly high even under high N deposition. This review aims to provide an overview of N retention processes in the forest floor and the implications of changing C-N interactions for C sequestration. The fate of available N in forest soils has been explained by the competitive balance between tree roots, soil heterotrophs, and nitrifiers. However, high rates of N retention have been observed in numerous N addition experiments without noticeable increases in tree growth and soil respiration. Alternative hypotheses have been proposed to explain the gap between the input and loss of N in N-enriched, C-limited systems, including abiotic immobilization and mycorrhizal assimilation, both of which do not require additional C sources to incorporate N in soil N pools. Different fates of N in the forest floor have different implications for C sequestration. N-induced tree growth can enhance C accumulation in tree biomass as observed across temperate regions. C loss from forests can amount to or outweigh C gain in N-saturated, declining forests, while another type of 'C-N decoupling' can have positive or neutral effects on soil C sequestration through hampered organic matter decomposition or abiotic N immobilization, respectively.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-176
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Ecology and Field Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2008


  • C sequestration
  • Forest ecosystem
  • Forest floor
  • N deposition
  • N retention
  • N saturation


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