Skip to main content Accessibility help

Distribution of soil nitrogen and nitrogenase activity in the forefield of a High Arctic receding glacier

  • Thomas Turpin-Jelfs (a1), Katerina Michaelides (a1) (a2), Joshua J. Blacker (a3), Liane G. Benning (a3) (a4) (a5), James M. Williams (a1) and Alexandre M. Anesio (a1) (a6)...


Glaciers retreating in response to climate warming are progressively exposing primary mineral substrates to surface conditions. As primary production is constrained by nitrogen (N) availability in these emerging ecosystems, improving our understanding of how N accumulates with soil formation is of critical concern. In this study, we quantified how the distribution and speciation of N, as well as rates of free-living biological N fixation (BNF), change along a 2000-year chronosequence of soil development in a High Arctic glacier forefield. Our results show the soil N pool increases with time since exposure and that the rate at which it accumulates is influenced by soil texture. Further, all N increases were organically bound in soils which had been ice-free for 0–50 years. This is indicative of N limitation and should promote BNF. Using the acetylene reduction assay technique, we demonstrated that microbially mediated inputs of N only occurred in soils which had been ice-free for 0 and 3 years, and that potential rates of BNF declined with increased N availability. Thus, BNF only supports N accumulation in young soils. When considering that glacier forefields are projected to become more expansive, this study has implications for understanding how ice-free ecosystems will become productive over time.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Distribution of soil nitrogen and nitrogenase activity in the forefield of a High Arctic receding glacier
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Distribution of soil nitrogen and nitrogenase activity in the forefield of a High Arctic receding glacier
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Distribution of soil nitrogen and nitrogenase activity in the forefield of a High Arctic receding glacier
      Available formats


This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Hide All
Bardgett, RD and others (2007) Heterotrophic microbial communities use ancient carbon following glacial retreat. Biol. Lett., 3(5), 487
Baron, JS, Allstott, EJ and Newkirk, BK (1995) Analysis of long-term sulfate and nitrate budgets in a Rocky Mountain basin. In Tonnessen, KA, Williams, MW and Tranter, M eds. Biogeochemistry of seasonally-snow-covered catchments. lASH Publ. No. 228, lASH Press, Oxfordshire
Bekku, YS, Nakatsubo, T, Kume, A, Adachi, M and Koizumi, H (2003) Effect of warming on the temperature dependence of soil respiration rate in Arctic, temperate and tropical soils. Appl. Soil Ecol., 22(3), 205210 (doi:
Belnap, J (2001) Factors influencing nitrogen fixation and nitrogen release in biological soil crusts. In belnap, J and Lange, O eds. Biological soil crusts: structure, function, and management. Ecological Studies. Vol. 150. Springer, Berlin, DE, pp. 241261
Bradley, JA, Singarayer, JS and Anesio, AM (2014) Microbial community dynamics in the forefield of glaciers. Proc. R. Soc. B: Biol. Sci., 281(1795), (doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0882)
Bradley, JA and others (2016) Microbial dynamics in a high Arctic glacier forefield: a combined field, laboratory, and modelling approach. Biogeosciences, 13, 56775696 (doi:
Bradley, JA, Anesio, AM and Arndt, S (2017) Microbial and biogeochemical dynamics in glacier forefields are sensitive to century-scale climate and anthropogenic change. Front. Earth Sci., 5(26), (doi: 10.3389/feart.2017.00026)
Brankatschk, R, Towe, S, Kleineidam, K, Schloter, M and Zeyer, J (2011) Abundances and potential activities of nitrogen cycling microbial communities along a chronosequence of a glacier forefield. ISME J., 5(6), 10251037
Breen, K and Lévesque, E (2008) The influence of biological soil crusts on soil characteristics along a high Arctic glacier foreland, Nunavut, Canada. Arct. Antarct. Alp. Res., 40(2), 287297 (doi: 10.2307/20181793)
Chapin, DM, Bliss, LC and Bledsoe, LJ (1991) Environmental regulation of nitrogen fixation in a high Arctic lowland ecosystem. Can. J. Bot., 69(12), 27442755 (doi: 10.1139/b91-345)
Cleveland, CC and others (1999) Global patterns of terrestrial biological nitrogen (N2) fixation in natural ecosystems. Global Biogeochem. Cycles, 13(2), 623645 (doi: 10.1029/1999GB900014)
Crawley, MJ (2005) Statistics: an Introduction using R. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester
Delgado-Baquerizo, M, García-Palacios, P, Milla, R, Gallardo, A and Maestre, FT (2015) Soil characteristics determine soil carbon and nitrogen availability during leaf litter decomposition regardless of litter quality. Soil Biol. Biochem., 81, 134142 (doi:
Duc, L, Noll, M, Meier, BE, Bürgmann, H and Zeyer, J (2009) High diversity of diazotrophs in the forefield of a receding alpine glacier. Microb. Ecol., 57(1), 179190 (doi: 10.2307/40343441)
Dümig, A, Smittenberg, R and Kögel-Knabner, I (2011) Concurrent evolution of organic and mineral components during initial soil development after retreat of the Damma glacier, Switzerland. Geoderma, 163(1), 8394 (doi:
Egli, M, Mavris, C, Mirabella, A and Giaccai, D (2010) Soil organic matter formation along a chronosequence in the Morteratsch proglacial area (Upper Engadine, Switzerland). CATENA, 82(2), 6169 (doi:
Ellis, S and Mellor, A (1995) Soil formation and environment. In Ellis, S and Mellor, A eds. Soils and environment. Routledge, London, 93122
Førland, EJ, Benestad, R, Hanssen-Bauer, I, Haugen, JE and Skaugen, TE (2011) Temperature and precipitation development at Svalbard 1900–2100. Adv. Meteorol., 2011, 893790 (doi:
Hassink, J (1994) Effects of soil texture and grassland management on soil organic C and N and rates of C and N mineralization. Soil Biol. Biochem., 26(9), 12211231 (doi:
Hedges, JI and Stern, JH (1984) Carbon and nitrogen determinations of carbonate-containing solids. Limnol. Oceanogr., 29(3), 657663 (doi: 10.4319/lo.1984.29.3.0657)
Hodkinson, ID, Coulson, SJ and Webb, NR (2003) Community assembly along proglacial chronosequences in the high Arctic: vegetation and soil development in north-west Svalbard. J. Ecol., 91(4), 651663 (doi: doi:10.1046/j.1365-2745.2003.00786.x)
Hodson, AJ, Mumford, PN, Kohler, J and Wynn, PM (2005) The high Arctic glacial ecosystem: new insights from nutrient budgets. Biogeochemistry, 72(2), 233256 (doi: 10.1007/s10533-004-0362-0)
Jeffery, S, Harris, JA, Rickson, RJ and Ritz, K (2009) The spectral quality of light influences the temporal development of the microbial phenotype at the arable soil surface. Soil Biol. Biochem., 41(3), 553560 (doi:
Keller, T and Håkansson, I (2010) Estimation of reference bulk density from soil particle size distribution and soil organic matter content. Geoderma, 154(3), 398406 (doi:
Knelman, JE and others (2012) Bacterial community structure and function change in association with colonizer plants during early primary succession in a glacier forefield. Soil Biol. Biochem., 46, 172180 (doi:
Lamorski, K and 5 others (2014) Assessment of the usefulness of particle size distribution measured by laser diffraction for soil water retention modelling. J. Plant Nutr. Soil Sci., 177(5), 803813 (doi: 10.1002/jpln.201300594)
Le Treut, H and others (2007) Historical overview of climate change science. In Solomon, S, Qin, D, Manning, M, Chen, Z, Marquis, M, Averyt, KB, Tignor, M and Miller, HL eds. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK/New York, NY, 93127
Logan, F (1968) Causes, climates and distribution of deserts. In Brown, GW Jr. ed. Desert biology. Vol. I. Academic Press, Inc, London, 2150
Menge, DN and Hedin, LO (2009) Nitrogen fixation in different biogeochemical niches along a 120 000-year chronosequence in New Zealand. Ecology, 90(8), 21902201
Moreau, M, Mercier, D, Laffly, D and Roussel, E (2008) Impacts of recent paraglacial dynamics on plant colonization: a case study on Midtre Lovénbreen foreland, Spitsbergen (79°N). Geomorphology, 95(1), 4860 (doi:
Nash, MV and others (2018) Metagenomic insights into diazotrophic communities across Arctic glacier forefields. FEMS Microbiol. Ecol. (doi: 10.1093/femsec/fiy114)
Pribyl, DW (2010) A critical review of the conventional SOC to SOM conversion factor. Geoderma, 156(3), 7583 (doi:
Rabouille, S, Staal, M, Stal, LJ and Soetaert, K (2006) Modeling the dynamic regulation of nitrogen fixation in the cyanobacterium Trichodesmium sp. Appl. Environ. Microbiol., 72(5), 3217
Rippin, D and others (2003) Changes in geometry and subglacial drainage of Midre Lovénbreen, Svalbard, determined from digital elevation models. Earth Surf. Processes Landforms, 28(3), 273298 (doi: 10.1002/esp.485)
Rowell, DL (1994) Soil science: methods & applications. Longman Group UK Ltd, London
Ruttenberg, KC (1992) Development of a sequential extraction method for different forms of phosphorus in marine sediments. Limnol. Oceanogr., 37(7), 14601482 (doi: 10.4319/lo.1992.37.7.1460)
Ruttenberg, KC and 5 others (2009) Improved, high-throughput approach for phosphorus speciation in natural sediments via the SEDEX sequential extraction method. Limnology and Oceanography: Methods, 7(5), 319333 (doi: 10.4319/lom.2009.7.319)
Sattin, SR and others (2009) Functional shifts in unvegetated, perhumid, recently-deglaciated soils do not correlate with shifts in soil bacterial community composition. J. Microbiol., 47(6), 673681 (doi: 10.1007/s12275-009-0194-7)
Saxton, KE and Rawls, WJ (2006) Soil water characteristic estimates by texture and organic matter for hydrologic solutions. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J., 70(5), 15691578 (doi: 10.2136/sssaj2005.0117)
Schimel, JP, Bilbrough, C and Welker, JM (2004) Increased snow depth affects microbial activity and nitrogen mineralization in two Arctic tundra communities. Soil Biol. Biochem., 36(2), 217227 (doi:
Schmidt, SK and others (2008) The earliest stages of ecosystem succession in high-elevation (5000 metres above sea level), recently deglaciated soils. Proc. R. Soc. B: Biol. Sci., 275(1653), 2793
Smith, V (1992) Effects of nitrogen: phosphorus supply ratios on nitrogen fixation in agricultural and pastoral ecosystems. Biogeochemistry, 18(1), 1935 (doi: 10.1007/BF00000424)
Solheim, B, Endal, A and Vigstad, H (1996) Nitrogen fixation in Arctic vegetation and soils from Svalbard, Norway. Polar Biol., 16(1), 3540 (doi: 10.1007/BF02388733)
Stocker, TF and others (2013) Technical summary. In Stocker, TF, Qin, D, Plattner, G-K, Tignor, M, Allen, SK, Boschung, J, Nauels, A, Xia, Y, Bex, V and Midgley, PM eds. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York, NY, 33115
Strauss, SL, Garcia-Pichel, F and Day, TA (2012) Soil microbial carbon and nitrogen transformations at a glacial foreland on Anvers Island, Antarctic Peninsula. Polar Biol., 35(10), 14591471 (doi: 10.1007/s00300-012-1184-5)
Telling, J and others (2011) Nitrogen fixation on Arctic glaciers, Svalbard. J. Geophysical Res.: Biogeosci., 116(G3), G03039 (doi: 10.1029/2010JG001632)
Telling, J and others (2012) Microbial nitrogen cycling on the Greenland ice sheet. Biogeosciences, 9(7), 24312442 (doi: 10.5194/bg-9-2431-2012)
Tester, M and Morris, C (1987) The penetration of light through soil. Plant, Cell Environ., 10, 281286
Töwe, S and others (2010) Abundance of microbes involved in nitrogen transformation in the rhizosphere of Leucanthemopsis alpina (L.) Heywood grown in soils from different sites of the Damma Glacier forefield. Microb. Ecol., 60(4), 762770 (doi: 10.1007/s00248-010-9695-5)
Tscherko, D, Rustemeier, J, Richter, A, Wanek, W and Kandeler, E (2003) Functional diversity of the soil microflora in primary succession across two glacier forelands in the Central Alps. Eur. J. Soil Sci., 54(4), 685696 (doi: 10.1046/j.1351-0754.2003.0570.x)
Turpin-Jelfs, T, Michaelides, K, Biederman, JA and Anesio, AM (2018) Soil nitrogen response to shrub encroachment in a degrading semiarid grassland. Biogeosciences Discuss. (doi: 10.5194/bg-2018-331)
USDA-SCS (1982) Procedures for collecting soil samples and methods of analysis for soil survey. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC
Vitousek, PM and Farrington, H (1997) Nutrient limitation and soil development: experimental test of a biogeochemical theory. Biogeochemistry, 37(1), 6375 (doi: 10.1023/A:1005757218475)
Vitousek, PM and others (1997) Human alteration of the global nitrogen cycle: sources and consequences. Ecol. Appl., 7(3), 737750 (doi: 10.2307/2269431)
Vitousek, PM, Hattenschwiler, S, Olander, L and Allison, S (2002) Nitrogen and nature. Ambio, 31(2), 97101



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed