The aim of this study was to examine the occurrence and concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in particular, volatile monoterpenes, in soil atmosphere under silver birch (Betula pendula L.) and two conifers, Norway spruce (Picea abies (L.) Karst.) and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.), and to determine the effects of the most relevant monoterpenes on transformations of soil N. The study site was a 70-year-old tree species experiment in Kivalo, northern Finland. VOCs were collected using two methods, passive air samplers and a chamber method. In soil atmosphere under spruce and especially under pine, the concentrations of monoterpenes were high, alpha- and beta-pinene, Delta-3-carene and myrcene being the most abundant compounds, whereas concentrations of monoterpenes in soil atmosphere under birch were negligible. Samples of humus layer from the birch stand incubated in vitro and exposed to vapors from monoterpenes typical of coniferous forest soil showed decreased rates of net N mineralization but simultaneously increased rates of C mineralization. The response of soil microbial biomass C and N to different monoterpenes varied, but some monoterpenes considerably decreased soil microbial biomass. Altogether these results suggest that these compounds have negative effects on soil N transformations, but may serve as carbon and energy source for part of soil microbes. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.