A7 The fate of phosphorus in forest and treeline ecosystems in Ecuador. [funded by DFG]

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Even remote areas such as tropical montane forests suffer from continuously high atmospheric nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) deposition. In studies on ecosystem responses to atmospheric nutrient deposition, P cycling has played an underrated role compared to N, although P is thought to limit organism growth in main parts of the Tropics. Furthermore, the responses of tropical montane forests to atmospheric nutrient deposition might depend on the predicted climate change i.e., shifts in temperature and precipitation.

Altitudinal gradients represent an ideal means to study environmental changes in tropical montane forests in southern Ecuador, because climate scenarios and unpublished trends in longer-term climate data predict increasing temperatures and decreased moisture which parallels the altitudinal gradient from 4000 m to 1000 m asl. Previous experiments, including the Nutrient Manipulation Experiment (NUMEX) experiment in Ecuador, showed that the main proportion of P added to forests to simulate atmospheric deposition was retained in soil. While total P pools in soil respond slowly to low P addition rates, the biological and geochemical processes underlying retention in the organic layer or in soil are expected to react faster.

The overarching objective of this project is to assess the fate of fertilized P in the organic layer and in mineral soil  and to elucidate the processes involved in P cycling in soil (immobilization and release rates by microorganisms, sorption/desorption, precipitation/dissolution) along the NUMEX-X altitudinal gradient (1000, 2000, 3000, 4000m; the latter including a Polylepis and a Páramo ecosystem). We will assess P fractions in soil and use a combination of 33P tracer studies and incubation experiments to disentangle biological and geochemical processes controlling P retention.

The mechanistic understanding gathered by this project is crucial for predictions of ecosystems responses to the continuously high atmospheric N (and P) deposition, because single mechanisms might respond differently (and oppositionally) in the long run. Because the processes involved in P cycling are expected to respond faster to environmental changes than e.g., P pools in soil, these different responses are an essential basis to evaluate effects of environmental change and finally, to develop “early-warning” ecosystem indicators for environmental change.


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