Impact of forest conversion to agriculture on carbon and nitrogen mineralization in subarctic Alaska

José M. Grünzweig*, Stephen D. Sparrow, F. Stuart Chapin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Land-use change is likely to be a major component of global change at high latitudes, potentially causing significant alterations in soil C and N cycling. We addressed the biogeochemical impacts of land-use change in fully replicated black spruce forests and agricultural fields of different ages (following deforestation) and under different management regimes in interior Alaska. Change from forests to cultivated fields increased summer temperatures in surface soil layers by 4-5°C, and lengthened the season of biological activity by two to three weeks. Decomposition of a common substrate (oat stubble) was enhanced by 25% in fields compared to forests after litter bags were buried for one year. In-situ net N mineralization rates in site-specific soil were similar in forests and fields during summer, but during winter, forests were the only sites where net N immobilization occurred. Field age and management had a significant impact on C and N mineralization. Rates of annual decomposition, soil respiration and summer net N mineralization tended to be lower in young than in old fields and higher in fallow than in planted young fields. To identify the major environmental factors controlling C and N mineralization, soil temperature, moisture and N availability were studied. Decomposition and net N mineralization seemed to be mainly driven by availability of inorganic N. Soil temperature played a role only when comparing forests and fields, but not in field-to-field differences. Results from soil respiration measurements in fields confirmed low sensitivity of heterotrophic respiration, and thus decomposition to temperature. In addition, both soil respiration and net N mineralization were limited by low soil water contents. Our study showed that (1) C and N mineralization are enhanced by forest clearing in subarctic soils, and (2) N availability is more important than soil temperature in controling C and N mineralization following forest clearing. Projecting the biogeochemical impacts of land-use change at high latitudes requires an improved understanding of its interactions with other factors of global change, such as changing climate and N deposition.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)271-296
Number of pages26
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2003
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Ann Rippy and Dennis Mulligan of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Fairbanks, Alaska for help with selecting sites and with soil taxonomy, and Brad Dewey of the University of Minnesota in Duluth for C fraction analysis. Special thanks also go to Darleen Masiak, Greg Dumont, Casmir Ag-baraji, Brad Jones and Natalie Howard for technical assistance, and to the farmers in the Fairbanks and Delta Junction areas for their cooperation. We acknowledge the helpful suggestions of William A. Reiners and two anonymous reviewers to an earlier draft of this paper. Funding was provided by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to JMG and by the US National Science Foundation to the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research program.


  • Boreal forest
  • Decomposition
  • Deforestation
  • Land-use change
  • Nitrification
  • Soil respiration


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