Graduate Theses & Dissertations

Early Responses of Understory Vegetation to Above Canopy Nitrogen Additions in a Jack Pine Stand in Northern Alberta
Abstract Early Responses of Understory Vegetation After One Year of Above Canopy Nitrogen Additions in a Jack Pine Stand in Northern Alberta Nicole Melong Nitrogen (N) emissions are expected to increase in western Canada due to oil and gas extraction operations. An increase in N exposure could potentially impact the surrounding boreal forest, which has adapted and thrived under traditionally low N deposition. The majority of N addition studies on forest ecosystems apply N to the forest floor and often exclude the important interaction of the tree canopy. This research consisted of aerial NH4NO3 spray applications (5, 10, 15, 20, 25 kg N ha-1yr-1) by helicopter to a jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lamb.) stand in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR) in northern Alberta, Canada. The main objective was to assess the impacts of elevated N after one year of treatment on the chemistry of understory vegetation, which included vascular plants, terricolous lichens, epiphytic lichens and a terricolous moss species. Changes in vegetation chemistry are expected to be early signs of stress and possible N saturation. Increased N availability is also thought to decrease plant secondary compound production because of a tradeoff that exists between growth and plant defense compounds when resources become available. Approximately 60% of applied N reached the ground vegetation in throughfall (TF) and stemflow (SF). Nitrate was the dominant form of N in TF in all treated plots and organic N (ON) was the dominant form of N in SF in all plots. The terricolous non-vascular species were the only understory vegetation that responded to the N treatments as N concentration increased with increased treatment. Foliar chemistry of the measured epiphytic lichens, vascular species, and jack pine was unaffected by the N treatments. Based on biomass measurements and N concentration increases, the non-vascular terricolous species appear to be assimilating the majority of TF N after one year. Vegetation from the high treatment plot (25 kg N ha-1yr-1) was compared to a jack pine forest receiving ambient high levels of N (21 kg N ha-1yr-1) due to its proximity to Syncrude mining activities. Nitrogen concentrations in plant tissues did not differ between the two sites; however, other elements and compounds differed significantly (Ca, Mg, Al, Fe). After one year of experimental N application, there were no environmental impacts consistent with the original N saturation hypothesis. Author Keywords: Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Canopy Interactions, Jack Pine, Nitrogen, Secondary Chemistry, Understory Vegetation

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