A new look at an old concept: using 15N2O isotopomers to understand the relationship between soil moisture and N2O production pathways
Understanding the production pathways of potent greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide (N2O), is essential for accurate flux prediction and for developing effective adaptation and mitigation strategies in response to climate change. Yet there remain surprising gaps in our understanding and precise quantification of the underlying production pathways – such as the relationship between soil moisture and N2O production pathways. A powerful, but arguably underutilized, approach for quantifying the relative contribution of nitrification and denitrification to N2O production involves determining 15N2O isotopomers and 15N site preference (SP) via spectroscopic techniques. Using one such technique, we conducted a short-term incubation where N2O production and 15N2O isotopomers were measured 24 h after soil moisture treatments of 40 % to 105 % water-filled pore space (WFPS) were established for each of three soils that differed in nutrient levels, organic matter, and texture. Relatively low N2O fluxes and high SP values indicted nitrification during dry soil conditions, whereas at higher soil moisture, peak N2O emissions coincided with a sharp decline in SP, indicating denitrification. This pattern supports the classic N2O production curves from nitrification and denitrification as inferred by earlier research; however, our isotopomer data enabled the quantification of source partitioning for either pathway. At soil moisture levels < 53 % WFPS, the fraction of N2O attributed to nitrification (FN) predominated but thereafter decreased rapidly with increasing soil moisture (x), according to FN=3.19-0.041x, until a WFPS of 78 % was reached. Simultaneously, from WFPS of 53 % to 78 %, the fraction of N2O that was attributed to denitrification (FD) was modelled as FD=-2.19+0.041x; at moisture levels of > 78 %, denitrification completely dominated. Clearly, the soil moisture level during transition is a key regulator of N2O production pathways. The presented equations may be helpful for other researchers in estimating N2O source partitioning when soil moisture falls within the transition from nitrification to denitrification.