Coupling soil water processes and nitrogen cycle across spatial scales: Potentials, bottlenecks and solutions
Interactions among soil water processes and the nitrogen (N) cycle govern biological productivity and environmental outcomes in the earth’s critical zone. Soil water influences the N cycle in two distinct but interactive modes. First, the spatio-temporal variation of soil water content (SWC) controls redox coupling among oxidized and reduced compounds, and thus N mineralization, nitrification, and denitrification. Secondly, subsurface flow controls the movement of water and dissolved N. These two processes interact such that subsurface flow dynamics control the occurrence of relatively static, isolated soil solution environments that span a range of reduced to oxidized conditions. However, the soil water-N cycle is usually treated as a black box. Models focused on N cycling simplify soil water parameters, while models focused on soil water processes simplify N cycling parameters. In addition, effective ways to deal with upscaling are lacking. New techniques will allow comprehensive coupling of the soil water-N cycle across time and space: 1) using hydrogeophysical tools to detect soil water processes and then linked to electrochemical N sensors to reveal the soil N cycle, (2) upscaling small-scale observations and simulations by constructing functions between soil water-N cycle and ancillary soil, topography and vegetation variables in the hydropedological functional units, and (3) integrating soil hydrology models with N cycling models to minimize the over-simplification of N biogeochemistry and soil hydrology mechanisms in these models. These suggestions will enhance our understanding of soil water processes and the N cycle and improve modeling of N losses as important sources of greenhouse gas emission and water pollution.