FARM FIELDS TO WETLANDS: BIOGEOCHEMICAL CONSEQUENCES OF RE-FLOODING IN COASTAL PLAIN AGRICULTURAL LANDS
Whether through sea level rise, farmland abandonment, or wetland restoration, agricultural soils in coastal areas will be inundated at increasing rates, renewing connections to sensitive surface waters and raising critical questions related to environmental tradeoffs. Wetland restoration in particular is often implemented not only to promote wildlife habitat, but also to improve water quality through nutrient removal, especially in agricultural catchments. The microbial process of denitrification is the central mechanism of nitrogen removal in wetlands and flooded soils, and can be seen as a potential environmental benefit of flooding agricultural lands. While denitrification undoubtedly can remove nitrogen from soil and surface water, higher soil moisture or flooding in wetland soils can also increase the production of greenhouse gases, specifically nitrous oxide and methane, representing a potential environmental tradeoff. Understanding the likely benefits of denitrification and the likely greenhouse gas costs of wetland restoration could help inform environmental policies concerning wetland restoration.
Determining whether restored wetlands are larger sources of greenhouse gases compared to contrasting land use types (agriculture and forested wetlands) was the first goal of this dissertation (Chapter 2). We measured gas fluxes from soil and water to the atmosphere, and related environmental variables, in four sites over two years to estimate fluxes of the three major greenhouse gases. We found that carbon dioxide was the major contributor to the radiative balance across all sites, but that in the agricultural site and one of the forested wetland reference sites, nitrous oxide was the second most important contributor. Many studies have shown that methane is more important that nitrous oxide in most freshwater wetlands, as we found in the other forested wetland reference site and in flooded parts of the restored wetland. Overall, we did not find higher greenhouse gas fluxes in the restored wetland compared to agricultural soils or forested wetlands.
The controls over nitrous oxide are especially complex, because it can be produced by two complementary processes, nitrification and denitrification, which generally occur under different conditions in the environment. In Chapter 3, we determined the soil and environmental factors that best predicted nitrous oxide fluxes for a subset of our data encompassing gas fluxes measured in November 2007. We found that soil temperature and soil carbon dioxide flux, along with ammonium availability and denitrification potential, were good predictors of nitrous oxide (adj R<super>2</super>=0.81). Although the nitrous oxide model did not perform as well when applied to data from another sampling period, we expect to further develop our modeling efforts to include possible non-linear temperature effects and a larger range of environmental conditions.
In Chapter 4, we present results of a stable isotope tracer experiment to determine the relative contribution of nitrification and denitrification to nitrous oxide fluxes in these different land use types, and to determine the response of these processes to changing soil moisture. We added two forms of nitrogen-15 to intact soil cores to distinguish nitrification from denitrification, and subjected the cores to drainage or to a simulated rain event. We found that across the range of soil moisture, the fraction of nitrous oxide produced by denitrification did not change, but within each soil type there was a response to the simulated rain. In mineral soils, the nitrous oxide fraction increased with increasing soil moisture, with the highest mole fraction [N2O/(N2+N2O)] in the agricultural soils, while in the organic soils there was no change or even a decrease. The fraction of nitrous oxide derived from coupled nitrification-denitrification increased with increasing soil moisture, and was much higher than that from denitrification alone in the more organic soils. This suggests that, in these saturated acid-organic soils, nitrification plays an important and underappreciated role in contributing to nitrous oxide fluxes from freshwater wetlands. The results from the laboratory experiment were consistent with patterns we saw in the field and help explain the differential contribution of nitrification and denitrification to nitrous oxide fluxes in different land use types in coastal plain wetlands of North Carolina.
Overall, we found that both nitrification and denitrification contribute to nitrous oxide fluxes in coastal plain wetlands in North Carolina, and that nitrification is an especially important source in acid-organic soils under both field-moist and saturated conditions. Although freshwater wetlands, with an average nitrous oxide mole fraction of 0.08, are generally seen as being insignificant sources of nitrous oxide, our study sites ranged from 0.10 to 0.30, placing them closer to agricultural fields (0.38; Schlesinger 2009). Although the ecosystems in our study produced more nitrous oxide than expected for freshwater wetlands, we found no significant tradeoff between the local water quality benefits conferred by denitrification and the global greenhouse gas costs in the restored wetland. These results suggest that, from a nitrogen perspective, wetland restoration in coastal agricultural lands has a net environmental benefit.
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