Spruce-fir forest changes during a 30-year nitrogen saturation experiment
A field experiment was established in a high elevation red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) – balsam fir (Abies balsamea) forest on Mount Ascutney Vermont, USA in 1988 to test the nitrogen (N) saturation hypothesis, and to better understand the mechanisms causing forest decline at the time. The study established replicate control, lowand high dose nitrogen addition plots (i.e., 0, 15.7 and 31.4 kg NH4Cl-N ha−1 yr−1). The treatments began in 1988 and continued annually until 2010, butmonitoring has continued to present. During the fertilization period, forest floor C:N, net in situ N mineralization, spruce foliar Ca%, and live spruce basal area decreased with increasing N addition, while foliar spruce N% and forest floor net nitrification increased with increasing N addition. The control plots aggraded forest floor N at a rate equal to the sum of the net in situ N mineralization plus average ambient deposition. Conversely, N addition plots lost forest floor N. Following the termination of N additions in 2010, the measured tree components returned to pre-treatment levels, but forest floor processes were slower to respond. During the 30 year study, site surface air temperature has increased by 0.5 °C per decade, and total N deposition has decreased 5.5 to 4.0 kg N ha−1 yr−1. There have also been three significant drought years and at least one freeze injury year after which much of the forest mortality on the N addition plots occurred. Given that there was no control for the air temperature increase, discussion of the interactive impacts of climate and change and N addition is only subjective. Predicted changes in climate, N deposition and other stressors suggest that even in the absence of N saturation, regeneration of the spruce-fir ecosystem into the next century seems unlikely despite recent region-wide growth increases.