New Source Of Nitrogen Challenges Understanding Of Climate Change

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New information published in the journal Science suggests a new source of nitrogen – calling into question the validity of our understanding of how plants get their resources.

For centuries at this point, it was understood that all of the nitrogen that plants need to function was absorbed through the atmosphere. However, new research recently published by the University of California, Davis, suggests that more than a quarter of the source of nitrogen that plants use to thrive comes from the Earth’s bedrock. This finding also solves the mystery of the “missing nitrogen” – offering an explanation for why we were finding more nitrogen in plants than we were seeing absorbed from the air.

The study will be published in Science on April 6th, and includes the research team’s findings that give us new information on the source of nitrogen. The fact that this knowledge has evaded us for so long is astounding, and it goes to show that even well-accepted tenets in various scientific field can be called into question when new information becomes available.

Before the study, the input of this source of nitrogen to the global land system was unknown. This finding is monumental for a number of reasons that extend beyond a simple desire for the advancement of knowledge – potentially greatly improving our climate change predictions which rely on an understanding of the carbon cycle in order to predict changes and head off potentially devastating effects before they happen. In addition to aiding our prediction models, the knowledge of this new source of nitrogen could actually aid our own efforts – enabling ecosystems to pull more emissions out of the atmosphere where they will pose a substantial threat in the years to come.

Ben Houlton, professor in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and director of the UC Davis Muir Institute as well as the co-author on this study stated that “Our study shows that nitrogen weathering is a globally significant source of nutrition to soils and ecosystems worldwide…This runs counter the centuries-long paradigm that has laid the foundation for the environmental sciences. We think that this nitrogen may allow forests and grasslands to sequester more fossil fuel CO2 emissions than previously thought.”

Nitrogen plays a key part in ecosystems as a method for absorbing carbon dioxide pollution, and having knowledge of a new source of nitrogen may help us adjust the way we fight to preserve our ecosystems and take action to reverse our effects on the fragile environment that humanity has caused a significant amount of damage.

It’s rare that we see findings that fly in the face of an entire field’s understanding, but it’s no doubt an exciting revelation for the environmental sciences that will spur a number of other research projects that seek to apply this new knowledge to taking advantage of this new source of nitrogen in any way possible.

According to Kendra McLauchlan, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, which co-funded the research. “These results are going to require rewriting the textbooks…While there were hints that plants could use rock-derived nitrogen, this discovery shatters the paradigm that the ultimate source of available nitrogen is the atmosphere. Nitrogen is both the most important limiting nutrient on Earth and a dangerous pollutant, so it is important to understand the natural controls on its supply and demand. Humanity currently depends on atmospheric nitrogen to produce enough fertilizer to maintain world food supply. A discovery of this magnitude will open up a new era of research on this essential nutrient.”

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