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Assessing the risk of nitrogen deposition to natural resources in the Four Corners area

February 6, 2013

Nitrogen (N) deposition in the western U.S. is on the rise and is already dramatically affecting terrestrial ecosystems. For example, N deposition has repeatedly been shown to lower air and water quality, increase greenhouse gas emissions, alter plant community composition, and significantly modify fire regimes. Accordingly, the effects of N deposition represent one of our largest environmental challenges and make difficult the National Park Service’s (NPS) important mission to “preserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife… unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. Due to increased population growth and energy development (e.g., natural gas wells), the Four Corners region has become a notable ‘hotspot’ for N deposition. However, our understanding of how increased N deposition will affect these unique ecosystems, as well as how much deposition is actually occurring, remains notably poor. Here we used a multi-disciplinary approach to gathering information in an effort to help NPS safeguard the Four Corners national parks, both now and into the future. We applied modeling, field, and laboratory techniques to clarify current N deposition gradients and to help elucidate the ecosystem consequences of N deposition to the national parks of the Four Corners area. Our results suggest that NOx deposition does indeed represent a significant source of N to Mesa Verde National Park and, as expected, N deposition significantly affects coupled biogeochemical cycling (N, carbon, and phosphorus) of these landscapes. We also found some surprising results. For example, perhaps due to the low nutrient availability in these (and other) dryland ecosystems, although most other research suggests that adding N reduces N fixation rates, N additions did not consistently reduce natural N inputs via biological N2 fixation at our dryland sites. While the timeline of this pilot project is too brief to elucidate all the potential insight from the approach utilized here (e.g., we have fertilization plots to explore how N deposition affects Bromus tectorum invasion that will surely yield provoking results), we plan to continue this exciting line of questioning and expect further insight to be forthcoming.

Publication Year 2013
Title Assessing the risk of nitrogen deposition to natural resources in the Four Corners area
Authors Sasha C. Reed, Jayne Belnap, Lisa Floyd-Hanna, Tim Crews, Jack Herring, Dave Hanna, Mark E. Miller, Michael C. Duniway, Carla M. Roybal
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70128265
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center