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Critical loads and plant species diversity

Excess of nitrogen (N) leads to changes in plant species composition, to a decrease of diversity and even to declining numbers of species growing at a site

Nitrogen addition experiments give a range of N deposition at which these negative effects occur.  These so-called empirical critical loads have been revised during an expert meeting (Noordwijkerhout, 23–25 June 2010) and can be found in the report "Review and revision of empirical critical loads and dose-response relationships".

Tentative dose-response relationships between N load and plant species richness are described in Chapter 4 of the CCE Status Report 2008; and Chapter 5 of that report applies the relationships to assess species loss in Europe for integrated assessment. Furthermore, Appendix C provides examples of the relationship between N deposition and ecosystem services that affect human well-being.

The abiotic properties of soils that are favourable for plant species were established decades ago. Ranges for pH, temperature, moisture, nutrients, alkalinity and other variables for many species are described in Ellenberg et al. (1991). These data also allow, e.g., to estimate the pH for a given a list of species (Wamelink et al. 2005). But can the inverse be modelled, i.e., can the plant species composition be infered from the abiotic properties of a site? If so, one would be able to set a limit to N deposition above which an ecosystem might change to an undesirable state.

For developing such models, and a quantitative limit to N in the soil, collaboration has been established between NFCs and habitat experts in many countries. Also, a document was compiled to use critical loads of nutrient N to assess the threat from N deposition to achieving favourable ‘conservation status’ for species and habitats listed in the Annexes of the EC Habitats Directive (92/43/ EEC).

Models currently in use to calculate (potential) plant species compositions are MOVE (Latour and Reiling 1993), Veg (Sverdrup et al. 2007), BERN (Schlutow and Huebener 2004); for an overview see also De Vries et al. (2007, 2010).


De Vries W, Kros H, Reinds GJ, Wamelink W, Mol J, Van Dobben H, Bobbink R, Emmett B, Smart S, Evans C, Schlutow A, Kraft P, Belyazid S, Sverdrup H, Van Hinsberg A, Posch M, Hettelingh J-P, 2007. Developments in deriving critical limits and modeling critical loads of nitrogen for terrestrial ecosystems in Europe. Alterra Report 1382, Alterra WUR, Wageningen, The Netherlands, 206 pp

De Vries W, Wamelink GWW, Van Dobben H, Kros J, Reinds GJ, Mol-Dijkstra JP, Smart SM, Evans CD, Rowe EC, Belyazid S, Sverdrup HU, Van Hinsberg A, Posch M, Hettelingh J-P, Spranger T, Bobbink R, 2010. Use of dynamic soil-vegetation models to assess impacts of nitrogen deposition on plant species composition: an overview. Ecological Applications 20(1): 60–79

Ellenberg H, Weber HE, Dull R, Wirth V, Werner W, Paulissen D, 1991. Indicator values of plants in Central Europe. Erich Golze, Göttingen, Germany

Latour JB, Reiling R, 1993. A multiple stress model for vegetation ('move'): A tool for scenario studies and standard-setting. Science of the Total Environment 134(Suppl.): 1513–1526

Schlutow A, Huebener P, 2004. The BERN model: bioindication ecosystem regeneration towards natural conditions. Texte 22/04, ISSN 0722-186X, Federal Environmental Agency (UBA), Berlin, Germany, 56 pp

Sverdrup H, Belyazid S, Nihlgård B, Ericson L, 2007. Modelling change in ground vegetation response to acid and nitrogen pollution, climate change and forest management at in Sweden 1500-2100 A.D. Water, Air and Soil Pollution: Focus 7: 163–179

Wamelink GWW, Goedhart PW, Van Dobben HF, Berendse F, 2005. Plant species as predictors of soil pH: Replacing expert judgement with measurements. Journal of Vegetation Science 16: 461–470

last update 05 Jun 2013