Risk, N., Snider, D. and Wagner-Riddle, C. 2013. Mechanisms leading to enhanced soil nitrous oxide fluxes induced by freeze-thaw cycles. Can. J. Soil Sci. 93: 401-414. The freezing and thawing of soil in cold climates often produces large emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) that may contribute significantly to a soil's annual greenhouse gas emission budget. This review summarizes the state of knowledge of the physical and biological mechanisms that drive heightened N2O emissions at spring melt. Most studies of freeze-thaw N2O emissions have concluded that denitrification is the dominant process responsible for the large thaw fluxes. Soil moisture, availability of carbon and nitrogen substrates, and freeze temperature and duration are the major factors identified as controlling freeze-thaw cycle (FTC) N2O emissions. Two mechanisms are proposed to lead to enhanced N2O emissions at thaw: (1) the physical release of N2O that is produced throughout the winter and trapped under frozen surface layers and/or within nutrient-rich water films in the frozen layers, and (2) the emission of newly produced (de novo) N2O at the onset of thaw, which is stimulated by increased biological activity and changes in physical and chemical soil conditions. Early studies implicated the physical release of N2O from subsurface soil layers as the main mechanism contributing to spring thaw emissions, but most current studies do not support this hypothesis. Mounting evidence suggests that most of the emitted N2O is produced de novo. This may be fueled by newly available denitrification substrates that are liberated from dead microbes, fine roots, and/or the disintegration of soil aggregates. The release of N2O trapped in shallow surface layers may represent a small, but important contribution of the total emissions. Application of new techniques to study microbial communities in their natural environments, such as metagenomics and stable isotope studies, have the potential to enhance our understanding of the soil N cycle and its linkages to FTC N2O emissions. Future field studies of N2O emissions ought to quantify both overwinter accumulation/release and the de novo production of N2O so that the contribution of each mechanism to the annual emission budget is known.
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