Understanding global change impacts on the globally important carbon storage in alpine, Arctic and sub-Arctic soils requires knowledge of the mechanisms underlying the balance between plant primary productivity and decomposition. Given that nitrogen availability limits both processes, understanding the response of the soil nitrogen cycle to shifts in temperature and other global change factors is crucial for predicting the fate of cold biome carbon stores. Measurements of soil enzyme activities at different positions of the nitrogen cycling network are an important tool for this purpose. We review a selection of studies that provide data on potential enzyme activities across natural, seasonal and experimental gradients in cold biomes. Responses of enzyme activities to increased nitrogen availability and temperature are diverse and seasonal dynamics are often larger than differences due to experimental treatments, suggesting that enzyme expression is regulated by a combination of interacting factors reflecting both nutrient supply and demand. The extrapolation from potential enzyme activities to prediction of elemental nitrogen fluxes under field conditions remains challenging. Progress in molecular '-omics' approaches may eventually facilitate deeper understanding of the links between soil microbial community structure and biogeochemical fluxes. In the meantime, accounting for effects of the soil spatial structure and in situ variations in pH and temperature, better mapping of the network of enzymatic processes and the identification of rate-limiting steps under different conditions should advance our ability to predict nitrogen fluxes. ©The Authors Journal compilation ©2011 Biochemical Society.