Interactive effects of disturbance and nitrogen availability on phosphorus dynamics of southern Appalachian forests
Understanding the main and interactive effects of chronically altered resource availability and disturbance on phosphorus (P) availability is increasingly important in light of the rapid pace at which human activities are altering these processes and potentially introducing P limitation. We measured P pools and fluxes in eighteen mixed forest stands at three elevations (low, mid, high) subjected to increasing atmospheric N deposition, where hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) was absent or declining due to infestation by the exotic hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae). While total soil P was similar across the study area, phosphorus fractionation revealed distinct differences in the distribution of soil P fractions as elevation and N availability increased. Soils from high elevation plots where N availability was greatest had 139 % larger organic P pools and 55 % smaller residual and refractory P pools than soils from low elevation plots with less N availability, suggesting that increased N availability has driven the depletion of recalcitrant P pools by stimulating biotic demand and sequestration. These differences in P distribution among fractions influenced how tree mortality affected P dynamics. At high elevations, plots containing declining hemlocks had significantly greater foliar P concentrations and fluxes of P from the forest floor than reference plots at similar elevations, whereas at low and mid-elevations there were no consistent differences between plots. Across all elevation classes, hardwood foliar N:P ratios were lower in plots with declining hemlocks. Collectively, these results suggest that increased N availability enhances bioavailable P, which is sequestered in vegetation until disturbances liberate it.