Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Groundwater patches play important role in forest health, water quality


Microbes in soggy soil remove nitrogen, a critical nutrient -- and pollutant

Even during summer dry spells, some isolated patches of soil in forested watersheds remain waterlogged.

This weir, a place in a stream where a wall controls the flow of water, measures stream flow and dissolved chemical exports from Watershed 3 at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, where the study took place.

Credit: Virginia Tech

These patches act as hot spots of microbial activity that remove nitrogen from groundwater and return it to the atmosphere, researchers from several institutions, including Virginia Tech, report in a leading scientific journal.

The discovery provides insight into the health of a forest. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for plant growth and productivity, but in streams, it can be a pollutant.

"The importance of these fragmented patches of saturated soil and their role in the fate of nitrogen in forested watersheds has been underappreciated until recently," said Kevin McGuire, an associate director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center based in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment, co-author of the article to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We were able to determine the importance of denitrification in patches of shallow groundwater, which have largely been overlooked control points for nitrogen loss from temperate forested watersheds," McGuire said.

Most nitrogen is deposited by rain. Temperate forests receive much larger inputs of nitrogen from the atmosphere than they export to streams. Once nitrogen leaves the forest in streams, it can become a water pollutant.

"In some ecosystems, there have been long-term declines in stream water export of nitrogen when inputs have remained elevated," said co-author Christine Goodale, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University.

"Understanding the fate of this nitrogen has been a challenge because denitrification — a gaseous loss of nitrogen to the atmosphere — is notoriously difficult to measure," said co-author Peter Groffman, an expert on denitrification at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

Denitrification removes nitrogen from water and can therefore improve water quality in downstream lakes and estuaries.

However, nitrogen is also an important nutrient for plant growth in the forest so removals of nitrogen by natural processes can reduce the productivity of the forest.

The research, led by Sarah Wexler while she was a postdoctoral associate in hydrology and stable isotope geochemistry at Cornell University, took place in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where the atmosphere annually deposits five to seven pounds of nitrogen per acre.

The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest is part of the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research Network.

McGuire, also an associate professor of hydrology in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, led another National Science Foundation-funded project at the site, which developed an organizing framework to describe and map variations of soil in the watershed that explain shallow groundwater occurrence and frequency.

Groundwater wells from this earlier study were used in the new research to monitor soils that may have had the right conditions to function as hot spots for denitrification.

At sites throughout the forest, the research team measured the presence of nitrate, a form of nitrogen that is highly mobile and reactive in the environment, determined whether the nitrate is a result of atmospheric deposition or microbial conversion, and discovered the nitrogen loss to the atmosphere.

"We were able to differentiate sources of nitrate and show that some of the nitrate was lost to the atmosphere by looking at nitrate at the atomic level, that is, at the isotopic composition of the nitrogen and oxygen in nitrate," said Wexler, who is now at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. "The isotopic composition of nitrate provides a natural way to directly track the details of nitrogen cycling."

McGurie said, "Some work remains to be done, but the aim is to be able to develop a better sense of where and how nitrogen is processed in the environment and be in a position to predict how changes in climate, for example warmer and wetter conditions, affect nitrogen cycling and water quality in forested ecosystems."

Lynn Davis | EurekAlert!

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Dispersal of Fish Eggs by Water Birds – Just a Myth?
19.02.2018 | Universität Basel

nachricht Removing fossil fuel subsidies will not reduce CO2 emissions as much as hoped
08.02.2018 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

TRAPPIST-1 planets provide clues to the nature of habitable worlds

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

The search for dark matter widens

21.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Natural enemies reduce pesticide use

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>