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Fertility of frost boils and the effect of diapirism on plant nitrogen uptake in a polar desert ecosystem of the Canadian High Arctic



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Polar desert environments are limiting in plant available nutrients, mainly nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) that severely limit plant growth and establishment. Cryogenic activity regularly patterns the ground into a patchwork of frost boils – sorted circles that are associated with an increase in moisture, fertility and plant cover. Within some frost boils, the accumulation of ice-rich soil at the permafrost table can cause an upward flow of soil organic carbon (SOC) enriched permafrost material into the active layer. These diapiric intrusions are predicted to fuel microbial activity and enrich the horizon in N and P; however, the enrichment of the diapir horizon and accessibility by plants has yet to be studied. The aim of this research was to characterize the N distribution within diapir horizons located in frost boils and the effect of these intrusions on vascular plant N uptake in a polar desert ecosystem of the Canadian High Arctic. Natural abundance and enriched isotope 15N techniques were used to trace the flow of N through the soil-plant system. Surface and diapir horizons contained the highest total C and total N content within frost boils. Natural abundance δ15N analysis indicated that uptake by Salix arctica plants located on frost boils in the absence of a diapir horizon were sourcing N from the surface. However, when diapir nutrients became available, S. arctica plants began sourcing N from the diapir horizon and underlying low SOC sources in the soil, while reducing uptake from the surface. The altered foraging strategy of S. arctica in response to diapir horizon formation was further indicated by significant uptake of atom%15N nutrients that were injected directly into diapir horizons. These findings suggest diapir horizons are enriched in N and accessible by plants roots as an important nutrient source that is instrumental in their survival within frost boils of a polar desert ecosystem in the high arctic.



frost boil, diapir, arctic, polar desert, nitrogen, phosphorus, Salix arctica, nutrient foraging strategy



Master of Science (M.Sc.)


Soil Science


Soil Science


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