Experimental nitrogen addition alters structure and function of a boreal bog: critical load and thresholds revealed

R. Kelman Wieder, Villanova University
Dale H. Vitt, Southern Illinois University
Melanie A. Vile, Athabasca University
Jeremy A. Graham, Michigan Technological University
Jeremy A. Hartsock, Southern Illinois University
Hope Fillingim, Villanova University
et al.

© 2019 The Authors. Ecological Monographs published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of Ecological Society of America This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Publisher’s version of record: https://doi.org/10.1002/ecm.1371


Bogs and fens cover 6% and 21%, respectively, of the 140,329 km2 Oil Sands Administrative Area in northern Alberta. Development of the oil sands has led to increasing atmospheric N deposition, with values as high as 17 kg N·ha−1·yr−1; regional background deposition is <2 kg>N·ha−1·yr−1. Bogs, being ombrotrophic, may be especially susceptible to increasing N deposition. To examine responses to N deposition, over five years, we experimentally applied N (as NH4NO3) to a bog near Mariana Lake, Alberta, unaffected by oil sands activities, at rates of 0, 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 kg N·ha−1·yr−1, plus controls (no water or N addition). Increasing N addition: (1) stimulated N2 fixation at deposition <3.1 kg N·ha−1·yr−1, and progressively inhibited N2 fixation as N deposition increased above this level; (2) had no effect on Sphagnum fuscum net primary production (NPP) in years 1, 2, and 4, but inhibited S. fuscum NPP in years 3 and 5; (3) stimulated dominant shrub and Picea mariana NPP; (4) led to increased root biomass and production; (5) changed Sphagnum species relative abundance (decrease in S. fuscum, increase in S. magellanicum, no effect on S. angustifolium); (6) led to increasing abundance of Rhododendron groenlandicum and Andromeda polifolia, and to vascular plants in general; (7) led to increasing shrub leaf N concentrations in Andromeda polifolia, Chamaedaphne calyculata, Vaccinium oxycoccos, V. vitis‐idaea, and Picea mariana; (8) stimulated cellulose decomposition, with no effect on S. fuscum peat or mixed vascular plant litter decomposition; (9) had no effect on net N mineralization rates or on porewater NH4+‐N, NO3−‐N, or DON concentrations; and (10) had minimal effects on peat microbial community composition. Increasing experimental N addition led to a switch from new N being taken up primarily by Sphagnum to being taken up primarily by shrubs. As shrub growth and cover increase, Sphagnum abundance and NPP decrease. Because inhibition of N2 fixation by increasing N deposition plays a key role in bog structural and functional responses, we recommend a N deposition critical load of 3 kg N·ha−1·yr−1 for northern Alberta bogs.