Phosphorus and Nitrogen Co-Limit Global Grassland Productivity
Abstract:Terrestrial ecosystem primary productivity has been considered to be primarily nitrogen (N) - limited, but may be co-limited by phosphorus (P), and possibly by potassium and micronutrients (K+m). The frequency, magnitude, and global extent of single or multiple nutrient limitations are poorly understood in natural systems, but can influence how anthropogenic nutrient enrichment affects ecosystem productivity and provisioning of ecosystem goods and services. We examined the occurrence and magnitude of nutrient limitation of aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) by N, P, and K+m at 42 grassland sites on five continents in the Nutrient Network (https://www.nutnet.umn.edu). N, P, and K+m were factorially applied annually in a randomized block design at all sites. ANPP was measured annually for 3 to 5 years by clipping and weighing standing aboveground biomass.
We found clear evidence for nutrient limitation of ANPP in these grasslands. Across all sites and years, the combined addition of N and P increased ANPP by 39% over controls, more than occurred if either was added alone (N: 18%; P: 9%), suggesting co-limitation of ANPP by both nutrients. Co-limitation by other nutrient combinations was not detected. At individual sites, ANPP limitation was most often alleviated by adding N and P together, but K+m addition alleviated ANPP limitation at three sites. Also, site-level limitation of ANPP by any one nutrient was positively correlated (R2 0.07 to 0.21) with limitation by other single or multiple nutrients, suggesting generalized multiple nutrient limitation. We found no differences in nutrient limitation of ANPP among continents or management practices, between native and previously cultivated grasslands, or with site soil properties or climate. These novel patterns of nutrient limitation of ANPP in grasslands around the global contradict the long-held idea that N is the primary nutrient limiting productivity in these ecosystems. Grasslands are globally important, accounting for a third of Earth’s net primary production. Anthropogenic enrichment of grasslands with N or P will likely render ANPP increasingly P, K+m, or multiple-nutrient limited, with consequences for grassland ecosystem services provision.