A new study suggests that scientists have discovered where a good percentage of Earth’s “missing nitrogen” comes from. This could be important as researchers work on ways to improve climate change projections going forward.
In a study published Friday in the journal Science, a team of researchers from the University of California, Davis discovered that more than a quarter of the world’s nitrogen — up to 26 percent — might be hidden in Earth’s bedrock, with the remaining three-fourths found in our planet’s atmosphere. This counters previous theories that suggested the atmosphere provides all of the nitrogen that allows plant life to grow.
The UC Davis team’s missing nitrogen discovery also opens up the possibility of more accurate climate change forecasts, which are heavily based on our planet’s carbon cycle. And with more nitrogen available to facilitate the cycle, the researchers believe that the gas’ previously undiscovered presence could be isolating a greater percentage of harmful greenhouse gas emissions than once believed, according to Science Daily.
The findings built upon previous research from the same UC Davis team, which suggested that there were high levels of nitrogen found in the rocks and trees in Northern California’s Klamath Mountains.
“Our study shows that nitrogen weathering is a globally significant source of nutrition to soils and ecosystems worldwide,” read a statement from study co-lead author Ben Houlton, director of UC Davis’ Muir Institute.
“This runs counter the centuries-long paradigm that has laid the foundation for the environmental sciences.”
— NSF Geosciences (@NSF_GEO) April 5, 2018
Detailing the process in which the missing nitrogen enters bedrock, the researchers wrote that this could take place during the chemical reactions that happen when rocks interact with rainwater, or when rocks weather through tectonic movements. This weathering process was observed to vary depending on the location, with areas in northern latitudes, including the Himalayas and Andes mountain ranges, experiencing tremendous levels of nitrogen-driven rock weathering, and those in Africa mostly immune to this phenomenon.
According to Houlton, understanding the geological features of rocks and determining their nutrient content could be crucial in prioritizing which parts of the world need to be focused on for conservation initiatives.
“When thinking about carbon sequestration, the geology of the planet can help guide our decisions about what we’re conserving,” he added.
As noted by the Independent, scientists have long been aware of the disconnect between the amount of nitrogen found in Earth’s atmosphere and the gas’ presence in plant life. But thanks to the new study’s findings, the mystery of the “missing nitrogen” has apparently been solved, with the answers to previous questions literally “written in stone,” according to researcher Scott Monford, a graduate student at UC Davis at the time the study was taking place.
Although farmers and gardeners rely heavily on nitrogen to grow plants and crops, the discovery of the “missing nitrogen” source still does not have any specific implications for these individuals at present, the researchers wrote. More research, however, might be needed, as the amount of nitrate from bedrock possibly found in groundwater still remains unknown.