Experimentally increased nutrient availability at the permafrost thaw front selectively enhances biomass production of deep-rooting subarctic peatland species

Frida Keuper*, Ellen Dorrepaal, Peter M. van Bodegom, Richard van Logtestijn, Gemma Venhuizen, Jurgen van Hal, Rien Aerts

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    Climate warming increases nitrogen (N) mineralization in superficial soil layers (the dominant rooting zone) of subarctic peatlands. Thawing and subsequent mineralization of permafrost increases plant-available N around the thaw-front. Because plant production in these peatlands is N-limited, such changes may substantially affect net primary production and species composition. We aimed to identify the potential impact of increased N-availability due to permafrost thawing on subarctic peatland plant production and species performance, relative to the impact of increased N-availability in superficial organic layers. Therefore, we investigated whether plant roots are present at the thaw-front (45 cm depth) and whether N-uptake (15N-tracer) at the thaw-front occurs during maximum thaw-depth, coinciding with the end of the growing season. Moreover, we performed a unique 3-year belowground fertilization experiment with fully factorial combinations of deep- (thaw-front) and shallow-fertilization (10 cm depth) and controls. We found that certain species are present with roots at the thaw-front (Rubus chamaemorus) and have the capacity (R. chamaemorus, Eriophorum vaginatum) for N-uptake from the thaw-front between autumn and spring when aboveground tissue is largely senescent. In response to 3-year shallow-belowground fertilization (S) both shallow- (Empetrum hermaphroditum) and deep-rooting species increased aboveground biomass and N-content, but only deep-rooting species responded positively to enhanced nutrient supply at the thaw-front (D). Moreover, the effects of shallow-fertilization and thaw-front fertilization on aboveground biomass production of the deep-rooting species were similar in magnitude (S: 71%; D: 111% increase compared to control) and additive (S + D: 181% increase). Our results show that plant-available N released from thawing permafrost can form a thus far overlooked additional N-source for deep-rooting subarctic plant species and increase their biomass production beyond the already established impact of warming-driven enhanced shallow N-mineralization. This may result in shifts in plant community composition and may partially counteract the increased carbon losses from thawing permafrost.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)4257-4266
    Number of pages10
    JournalGlobal Change Biology
    Issue number10
    Early online date4 Jul 2017
    Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017


    • belowground nitrogen
    • climate change
    • Empetrum hermaphroditum
    • fertilization
    • frozen soil
    • permafrost thaw
    • root uptake
    • Rubus chamaemorus


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