Ecosystem flip-flops in response to anthropogenic N deposition:  The importance of long-term experiments. 

George Vourlitis1

Anthropogenic nitrogen (N) deposition has the capacity to alter terrestrial ecosystem structure and function; however, short-term (months-years) responses may be fundamentally different than long-term (years-decades) responses.  Here the results of a 14 year field N addition experiment are reported for two semi-arid shrublands, a post-fire chaparral and a mature coastal sage scrub (CSS), located in San Diego County, California that have been exposed to 50 kgN ha-1 yr-1 since 2003.  Since >90% of the anthropogenic N in this region consists of dry deposition, N was added during the late-summer or early-fall each year to assess how dry N inputs alter ecosystem processes.  Both shrublands experienced complete “flip-flops” in their response to experimental dry N inputs.  For example, post-fire chaparral plots exposed to added N had significantly lower net primary production (NPP) than control plots over the first 3 years of the experiment, but thereafter, the NPP in N plots increased consistently each year and became significantly higher than in control plots after 7 years of N fertilization.  In CSS, NPP and the abundance of Artemisia californica, a co-dominant shrub, increased significantly in N plots over the first 6 years, but thereafter, NPP and the abundance of A. californica and Salvia mellifera, the other co-dominant shrub, declined, and now the N plots have a lower NPP and are dominated by the invasive annual Brassica nigra.  These transient responses, and interactions between N accumulation and other factors such as post-fire succession (chaparral) and chronic drought (CSS), would have been missed if the experiment was ended after the end of a typical funding cycle, highlighting the importance of long-duration field experiments in assessing ecosystem responses to chronic N enrichment. 


1California State University,