Forest ecologists have long wondered why forests decline in the absence of catastrophic disturbances. A new study, in part funded by the British Ecological Society, and published in this week’s Science, has shed new light on this problem.
This study investigated natural forested stands across each of six ’chronosequences’ or sequences of soils of different ages since the most recent major disturbance. These sequences were located in a range of climatic zones, including northern Sweden (a series of forested islands near Arjeplog), Alaska, Hawaii, eastern Australia and two locations in southern New Zealand. All sequences consisted of forest stands on soils ranging in age from those formed very recently to those at least several thousand years old; the oldest soils studied were 4.1 million years old in Hawaii.
For all six sequences, forest biomass (mass of trees per unit area) increased initially as soil fertility increased. However, after thousands to tens of thousands of years, forest biomass declined sharply for all sequences, to a level where some sites could no longer support trees. The researchers found that this decline in all cases was due to reduced levels of plant-available phosphorus relative to nitrogen in the soil. As soils age, phosphorus becomes increasingly limiting for trees because it is not biologically renewable in the ecosystem. Conversely, nitrogen is biologically renewable (because atmospheric nitrogen can be converted by soil bacteria into forms of nitrogen that trees can use), so nitrogen limitation does not contribute to forest decline in these systems, contrary to popular views. There was also evidence from this study that phosphorous limitation during stage of forest decline negatively affected soil organisms, and therefore reduced their potential to release nutrients from the soil for maintaining tree growth.
Becky Allen | alfa
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