Analysis of nitrogen saturation potential in Rocky Mountain tundra and forest: Implications for aquatic systems

We employed grass and forest versions of the CENTURY model under a range of N deposition values (0.02–1.60 g N m–2 y–1) to explore the possibility that high observed lake and stream N was due to terrestrial N saturation of alpine tundra and subalpine forest in Loch Vale Watershed, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Model results suggest that N is limiting to subalpine forest productivity, but that excess leachate from alpine tundra is sufficient to account for the current observed stream N. Tundra leachate, combined with N leached from exposed rock surfaces, produce high N loads in aquatic ecosystems above treeline in the Colorado Front Range. A combination of terrestrial leaching, large N inputs from snowmelt, high watershed gradients, rapid hydrologic flushing and lake turnover times, and possibly other nutrient limitations of aquatic organisms constrain high elevation lakes and streams from assimilating even small increases in atmospheric N. CENTURY model simulations further suggest that, while increased N deposition will worsen the situation, nitrogen saturation is an ongoing phenomenon.