We review some of the unique features of biogeochemical cycling in forests of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, USA. As is the case for most arid and semi-arid ecosystems, spatial and temporal variability in nutrient contents and fluxes are quite high. “Islands of fertility” are common in these forests, a result of spatial variations in both litterfall and decomposition rates. Dry summer conditions greatly inhibit biological activity in the O horizon, and thus most annual litter decomposition takes place beneath the snowpack when moisture is available. Snowmelt duration is shortened near tree boles because of local warming, resulting in earlier drying of the O horizon, significantly lower decomposition rates, and increased O horizon mass. Water and nutrient fluxes vary spatially because of snowdrift in winter and surface runoff over hydrophobic soils in summer and fall. Moisture variability in the vertical as well as the horizontal dimension has significant consequences for nutrient fluxes. Because of the very dry summers, rooting in the O horizons is absent in these forests, and thus competition between microbes and trees for nutrients in that horizon is non-existent. Nutrients mineralized from the O horizon and not taken up by plants enrich runoff through the O horizons over hydrophobic mineral soils, resulting in very high concentrations of inorganic N and P in runoff waters. Substantial temporal variations in water and nutrient fluxes occur on a seasonal (with snowmelt being the dominant hydrologic event of the year), annual, and decadal basis. The most significant temporal variation is due to periodic fire, which we estimate causes annualized N losses that are two orders of magnitude greater than those associated with leaching and runoff. We hypothesize that fire suppression during the 20th century may have contributed to the deterioration of nearby Lake Tahoe by allowing buildups of N and P in O horizons which could subsequently leach from the terrestrial ecosystem to the Lake in runoff. In general, we conclude that biogeochemical cycling in these forests is characterized by greater spatial and temporal variability than in more mesic forest ecosystems.
Johnson, D.W., W.W. Miller, R.B. Susfalk, R.A. Dahlgren, and D.W. Glass (2009): Biogeochemical Cycling in Forest Soils of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Forest Ecology and Management 258(10): 2249-2260. DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2009.01.018