Nitrogen leaching from natural ecosystems under global change: a modelling study

12-12-2017 | Publication

To study global nitrogen (N) leaching from natural ecosystems under changing N deposition, climate, and atmospheric CO2, we performed a factorial model experiment for the period 1901–2006 with the N-enabled global terrestrial ecosystem model LPJ-GUESS (Lund–Potsdam–Jena General Ecosystem Simulator).

In eight global simulations, we used either the true transient time series of N deposition, climate, and atmospheric CO2 as input or kept combinations of these drivers constant at initial values. The results show that N deposition is globally the strongest driver of simulated N leaching, individually causing an increase of 88 % by 1997–2006 relative to pre-industrial conditions. Climate change led globally to a 31 % increase in N leaching, but the size and direction of change varied among global regions: leaching generally increased in regions with high soil organic carbon storage and high initial N status, and decreased in regions with a positive trend in vegetation productivity or decreasing precipitation.

Rising atmospheric CO2 generally caused decreased N leaching (33 % globally), with strongest effects in regions with high productivity and N availability. All drivers combined resulted in a rise of N leaching by 73 % with strongest increases in Europe, eastern North America and South-East Asia, where N deposition rates are highest. Decreases in N leaching were predicted for the Amazon and northern India. We further found that N loss by fire regionally is a large term in the N budget, associated with lower N leaching, particularly in semi-arid biomes. Predicted global N leaching from natural lands rose from 13.6 Tg N yr−1 in 1901–1911 to 18.5 Tg N yr−1 in 1997–2006, accounting for reductions of natural land cover.

Ecosystem N status (quantified as the reduction of vegetation productivity due to N limitation) shows a similar positive temporal trend but large spatial variability. Interestingly, this variability is more strongly related to vegetation type than N input. Similarly, the relationship between N status and (relative) N leaching is highly variable due to confounding factors such as soil water fluxes, fire occurrence, and growing season length. Nevertheless, our results suggest that regions with very high N deposition rates are approaching a state of N saturation.