Bioavailable soil phosphorus decreases with increasing elevation in a subarctic tundra landscape

Phosphorus (P) is an important macronutrient in arctic and subarctic tundra and its bioavailability is regulated by the mineralization of organic P. Temperature is likely to be an important control on P bioavailability, although effects may differ across contrasting plant communities with different soil properties. We used an elevational gradient in northern Sweden that included both heath and meadow vegetation types at all elevations to study the effects of temperature, soil P sorption capacity and oxalate-extractable aluminium (Alox) and iron (Feox) on the concentration of different soil P fractions. We hypothesized that the concentration of labile P fractions would decrease with increasing elevation (and thus declining temperature), but would be lower in meadow than in heath, given that N to P ratios in meadow foliage are higher. As expected, labile P in the form of Resin-P declined sharply with elevation for both vegetation types. Meadow soils did not have lower concentrations of Resin-P than heath soils, but they did have 2–fold and 1.5–fold higher concentrations of NaOH-extractable organic P and Residual P, respectively. Further, meadow soils had 3-fold higher concentrations of Alox + Feox and a 20% higher P sorption index than did heath soils. Additionally, Resin-P expressed as a proportion of total soil P for the meadow was on average half that in the heath. Declining Resin-P concentrations with elevation were best explained by an associated 2.5–3.0°C decline in temperature. In contrast, the lower P availability in meadow relative to heath soils may be associated with impaired organic P mineralization, as indicated by a higher accumulation of organic P and P sorption capacity. Our results indicate that predicted temperature increases in the arctic over the next century may influence P availability and biogeochemistry, with consequences for key ecosystem processes limited by P, such as primary productivity.