Modeling plant, microorganisms, and mineral surface competition for soil nitrogen and phosphorus: Competition representations and ecological significance

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Qing Zhu, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, United States, William J Riley, Lawrence Berkeley Natl Lab, Berkeley, CA, United States, Jeffrey Q Chambers, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States and Jinyun Tang, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Berkeley, CA, United States
It is widely accepted that terrestrial ecosystem carbon dynamics are strongly coupled and controlled by soil nutrients status. Nutrient availability serves as an indicator of aboveground carbon productivity and ecosystem stability, especially when soils are infertile. In these conditions, plants have to outcompete microorganism and mineral surfaces to acquire nutrients required for photosynthesis, respiration, seed production, defense, etc. It is usually hypothesized that microbes are short-term winners but long-term losers in nutrient competition. Microbes quickly trap available soil nitrogen and phosphorous, thereby preventing nutrient inaccessibility through hydrological leaching and mineral surface adsorption. Over longer temporal scales, nutrients are released into the soil and become available for plant uptake.

Despite its ecological significance, nutrient competition is either absent or over-simplified (e.g., assuming all consumers are equally competitive) in terrestrial biogeochemistry models. Here, we aim to test the representation of different competitive strategies and to investigate their ecological consequences with a newly developed biogeochemical model structure. The new model includes three major soil nutrients (ammonia, nitrate, and phosphate) and multiple consumers (plants, microbes, mineral surfaces, nitrifiers, and denitrifiers). We analyze predicted soil carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus dynamics with three different competitive strategies: (1) plants compete poorly against microorganisms; (2) all consumers are equally competitive; and (3) an explicit Equilibrium Chemical Approximation (ECA; Tang and Riley (2013)) treatment.

We find that very different ecosystem states are predicted when assuming different competitive structures, and that the ECA approach provides the best match with a large suite of observational constraints from tropical experimental and transect studies. We conclude that terrestrial biogeochemical models should represent a competitive structure that includes dynamic individual component representation of (1) nutrient stoichiometries; (2) affinities for nitrogen and phosphorous; and (3) abiotic interactions.