Research Article

Convergent evidence for widespread rock nitrogen sources in Earth’s surface environment

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Science  06 Apr 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6384, pp. 58-62
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan4399

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Freed from a rocky embrace

Nitrogen availability is a central controller of terrestrial plant growth and, thereby, of the carbon cycle and global climate change. It has been widely assumed that the atmosphere is the main source of terrestrial nitrogen input. Surprisingly, Houlton et al. now show that bedrock is just as large a nitrogen source across major sectors of the global terrestrial environment. They used three diverse and largely independent assessments of the nitrogen mobility and reactivity of rocks in the surface environment. These approaches yielded convergent estimates pointing to the equal importance of the atmosphere and bedrock as nitrogen sources.

Science, this issue p. 58

Abstract

Nitrogen availability is a pivotal control on terrestrial carbon sequestration and global climate change. Historical and contemporary views assume that nitrogen enters Earth’s land-surface ecosystems from the atmosphere. Here we demonstrate that bedrock is a nitrogen source that rivals atmospheric nitrogen inputs across major sectors of the global terrestrial environment. Evidence drawn from the planet’s nitrogen balance, geochemical proxies, and our spatial weathering model reveal that ~19 to 31 teragrams of nitrogen are mobilized from near-surface rocks annually. About 11 to 18 teragrams of this nitrogen are chemically weathered in situ, thereby increasing the unmanaged (preindustrial) terrestrial nitrogen balance from 8 to 26%. These findings provide a global perspective to reconcile Earth’s nitrogen budget, with implications for nutrient-driven controls over the terrestrial carbon sink.

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