Nutrient availability and phytoplankton nutrient limitation across a gradient of atmospheric nitrogen deposition

James J. Elser, Marcia Kyle, Laura Steuer, Koren R. Nydick, Jill S. Baron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

148 Scopus citations


Atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition to lakes and watersheds has been increasing steadily due to various anthropogenic activities. Because such anthropogenic N is widely distributed, even lakes relatively removed from direct human disturbance are potentially impacted. However, the effects of increased atmospheric N deposition on lakes are not well documented, We examined phytoplankton biomass, the absolute and relative abundance of limiting nutrients (N and phosphorus [P]), and phytoplankton nutrient limitation in alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (USA) receiving elevated (>6 kg N·ha-1·yr-1) or low (<2 kg N·ha-1·yr-1) levels of atmospheric N deposition. Highdeposition lakes had higher NO3-N and total N concentrations and higher total N : total P ratios. Concentrations of chlorophyll and seston carbon (C) were 2-2.5 times higher in highdeposition relative to low-deposition lakes, while high-deposition lakes also had higher seston C:N and C:P (but not N:P) ratios. Short-term enrichment bioassays indicated a qualitative shift in the nature of phytoplankton nutrient limitation due to N deposition, as highdeposition lakes had an increased frequency of primary P limitation and a decreased frequency and magnitude of response to N and to combined N and P enrichment. Thus elevated atmospheric N deposition appears to have shifted nutrient supply from a relatively balanced but predominantly N-deficient regime to a more consistently P-limited regime in Colorado alpine lakes. This adds to accumulating evidence that sustained N deposition may have important effects on lake phytoplankton communities and plankton-based food webs by shifting the quantitative and qualitative nature of nutrient limitation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3062-3073
Number of pages12
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2009


  • Alpine lakes
  • Colorado (usa)
  • Nitrogen
  • Nitrogen deposition
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Phosphorus
  • Phytoplankton
  • Rocky mountains


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