Controls on Fine-Scale Spatial and Temporal Variability of Plant-Available Inorganic Nitrogen in a Polygonal Tundra Landscape

Richard J. Norby*, Victoria L. Sloan, Colleen M. Iversen, Joanne Childs

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
162 Downloads (Pure)


Nitrogen availability in the Arctic strongly influences plant productivity and distribution, and in permafrost systems with patterned ground, ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycling can vary substantially over short distances. Improved understanding of fine-scale spatial and temporal variation in soil N availability is needed to better predict tundra responses to a warming climate. We quantified plant-available inorganic nitrogen at multiple soil depths in 12 microhabitats associated with a gradient from low-center ice-wedge polygons to high-center polygons in coastal tundra at Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. We measured vegetation composition, biomass, N content, and rooting depth distribution, as well as soil temperature, moisture, pH, and thaw depth to determine relationships between the spatial and temporal variability in N availability and environmental and vegetation drivers. Soil moisture varied across the microhabitats of the polygonal terrain and was the most important variable linked to distribution of both ammonium and nitrate, with ammonium predominating in wetter areas and nitrate predominating in drier areas. Total inorganic N availability increased as the soil in the active layer thawed, but the newly available N near the permafrost boundary late in the season was apparently not available to roots and did not contribute to plant N content. Nitrate in the drier sites also was not associated with plant N content, raising the possibility of N losses from this N-limited ecosystem. The strong relationship between soil moisture, inorganic N availability, and plant N content implies that understanding hydrological changes that may occur in a warming climate is key to determining nutrient cycling responses in complex polygonal tundra landscapes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)528-543
Number of pages16
Issue number3
Early online date3 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2019


  • active layer
  • ammonium
  • Arctic
  • ice-wedge polygons
  • microhabitat
  • nitrate
  • plant-available nitrogen
  • root distribution
  • thaw
  • tundra


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