A surprising finding about Nitrogen in our atmosphere

From the NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION, a surprising finding.

New source of global nitrogen discovered: Earth’s bedrock

Nitrogen from bedrock can result in side-by-side productive forests and barren acidic areas

For centuries, the thinking has been that all the nitrogen available for plant growth worldwide comes from the atmosphere. But a new study by National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researchers at the University of California (UC), Davis, shows that more than a quarter of that nitrogen is derived from the weathering of Earth’s bedrock.

The results, published this week in the journal Science, demonstrate that up to 26 percent of the nitrogen in ecosystems is sourced from rocks, with the remaining amount from the atmosphere.

“This research reveals important connections among the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the rocks at Earth’s surface,” said Richard Yuretich, a program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the study.

These are sedimentary rocks of the Grand Canyon. This rock type contains high levels of nitrogen. CREDIT
Scott Morford

The findings show that rock weathering is a globally significant source of nitrogen to soils and ecosystems, according to co-author and team leader Ben Houlton of UC Davis. “That runs counter to the centuries-long paradigm that has laid the foundation for the environmental sciences,” said Houlton.

Geology and carbon sequestration

Rock-derived nitrogen may fuel the growth of forests and grasslands, and allow them to sequester more carbon dioxide than previously thought. Mapping the nutrient profiles in rocks for their carbon uptake potential could help drive conservation efforts, the researchers said.

“Geology might have a huge control over which systems can take up carbon dioxide and which ones can’t,” Houlton said. “When thinking about carbon sequestration, the geology of the planet can help guide our decisions.”

Mysterious gap

The work also helps solve the “case of the missing nitrogen.” For decades, scientists have recognized that more nitrogen accumulates in soils and plants than can be explained by input from the atmosphere alone, but researchers couldn’t pinpoint what was missing.

“We show that the paradox of nitrogen is literally ‘written in stone,'” said co-author Scott Morford of UC Davis. “There’s enough nitrogen in rocks, and it breaks down fast enough, to explain the cases where there has been this mysterious gap.”

In previous work, Houlton and Morford analyzed rocks collected from the Klamath Mountains in northern California, and found that the rocks and the surrounding trees contained large amounts of nitrogen.

In the current study, they built on that work, analyzing the entire planet’s nitrogen balance; the scientists developed a model to assess rock nitrogen availability on a global scale.

Rewriting textbooks

“These results are going to require rewriting textbooks,” said Kendra McLauchlan, a program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, which co-funded the research. “While there were hints that plants could use rock-derived nitrogen, this discovery shatters the paradigm that the ultimate source of nitrogen is the atmosphere. A discovery of this magnitude will open up a new era of research on this essential nutrient.”

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78 thoughts on “A surprising finding about Nitrogen in our atmosphere

  1. If plants could get all the N they need naturally from the air, farmers wouldn’t need ammonia fertilizer.

    And, need I add, that the feedstock for production of nitrogenous fertilizers (ammonia, urea, ammonium nitrate) is natural gas (methane)? Hydrogen atoms in the natural gas (CH4) are combined with atmospheric nitrogen to make NH3 (ammonia).

    So the air is ultimately the source for N in fertilizer, but human use of fossil fuel makes more of it available.

    • Having to use fertilizer for MODERN farming doesn’t necessarily mean that another source of Nitrogen is needed. The atmosphere just might not be able to provide Nitrogen fast enough for the far denser than natural plant growth.

      • The atmosphere contains measly 78% nitrogen, making it a very precious resource, for which plants compete mercilessly … /sarc

      • Perhaps I should add that N is often not abundant in the ground, from lack of N-fixing organisms in the soil, from absence of N-bearing minerals or other shortages.

      • Nitrogen availability has never been the issue as all plants are bathed in it (air). The issue has always been how much of a plants fixed energy (photosynthate) has to go towards acquiring N. Just as it is energetically costly for people to make nitrogen fertilizer, it is also energetically costly for plants and their symbionts (or free living N fixers) to fix nitrogen. It is less costly to take up soil N via mycorrhizal symbionts and by the time N is readily available it must be competed for against ruderal plants (weeds). As long as their is readily available N weeds win as they don’t invest resources in mycorrhizae or N fixation. If we make Nn readily available by fertilization, the we invest a lot of energy in controlling weeds. Plants or their mycoorhizal symbionts take up nutrients directly from minerals but it is relatively energetical costy, requiring the production of enzymes, chelates, etc. Whether or not minerals are an important source of N is entirely dependent on the energetic cost of releasing the N bound in minerals into an available form. I am betting that mineral bound N is expensive N and so is the N of last resort.

    • Jax,

      Atmospheric N is a limiting factor on plant growth, as too are CO2 and H2O. Plants make food (sugar) from the latter two nutrients, but need N to build structural proteins from amino acids.

      In the past, before people promoted agriculture with artificial N fertilizers, land plants had to get their extra N from their soil and rock substrates. N-fixing plants helped out. As the paper shows, plants today still rely on N from the ground as well as the air, and not just human crops.

      • More lightning might be indicated for for extra nitrogenation because it usually accompanies precip. I see instant results from a good t-storm boosted by 400 ppm (when it’s warm enough).

    • Hear Hear!

      For centuries, the thinking has been that all the nitrogen available for plant growth worldwide comes from the atmosphere” is a stupid statement.
      For example, New Zealand’s pastoral industry relies almost entirely on the availability of nitrogenous and related fertilizer.
      https://teara.govt.nz/en/fertiliser-industry

      Although much of the fertilizer is organic in origin, a significant portion comes from rock which is ground down to suitable consistency. It is true that this rock was once probably organic so I am very surprised that the writers of this “study” are surprised.

      Cheers

      Roger

      http://www.thedemiseofchristchurch.com

    • “Rock-derived nitrogen may fuel the growth of forests and grasslands, and allow them to sequester more carbon dioxide than previously thought.”

      The fallacy in thinking here is there is a need to think in terms of CO2 being sequestered. We need MORE CO2 in the atmosphere, not less. They need to get on the real science and realize that CO2 is plant food and we need more, not less.

    • By the way Nitrogen is a very stable ELEMENT found throughout the universe and not a compound found only on earth.
      Elements are generated in stars and at times in space too, even before planet earth was born ,
      Elements are spread all over space and in other planets and galaxies as well .
      Hence elements can only be extracted on earth by microbes and some other species but not created here ( though we humans with our ingenuity produce / concoct / extract comparatively, very nominal / limited quantities in our labs for fun and at times for industrial use too . Note that humans have not created any original stable “elements” because we cant generate the necessary temperature pressure conditions as available in stars where elements are normally produced )
      Gaseous elements and other elements too at times get trapped in rocks which will yield them again under conducive temperature pressure conditions only; but even rocks on earth don’t produce elements on their own ).

      • Hydridic Earth by V Larin says that that ‘star production’ of elements exist beneath our feet. As in pressurized hydrogen in our earth’s core.

  2. Since they were so wrong about nitrogen in the atmosphere, I wonder what other gases in the atmosphere they might have made wrong assumptions about?

  3. Pop Piasa… Right on!
    If one can believe the raw ( that is..’uncorrected’) satellite data, there are as many as 100 discharges per second worldwide… Yes a hundred a second!! And if you’ve ever been close enough to a lightning strike to make you jump out of your seat, you may have noticed a brown cloud surrounding the strike zone. That’s NO2. Being highly soluble it dissolves quickly in water, which tends to be plentiful during thunderstorms, and bingo! We have nitric acid rain (typically ph 5+/-) even without a nearby sulphur dioxide spewing power station chimney to blame!
    Now it’s hard to know what to believe anymore, even if it’s on GoogleWicki, but they say there’s as much as 7,000 tons a day of ‘Nitrates’ ( whatever that means) raining down on us, more or less than all the Ammonium Nitrate produced to fertilize farmer’s fields…makes one wonder what all the outrage was about VW’s “Sins of Emission” which apparently was also about oxides of Nitrogen in their diesel exhaust…
    Sin, it seems, even if not original is still popular.
    Cheers

    • The nitrates are generally produced by organic processes, not lightning. They are produced by the action of enzymes known as nitrogenases in living micro-organisms. Now, the reason that nitrates are used as fertilizers is that they are much cheaper than dayrates.

    • An, S. and W. S. Gardner. 2002. Dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium (DNRA) as a nitrogen link, versus denitrifiation as a sink in a shallow estuary (Laguna Madre/Baffin Bay, Texas). Marine Ecology Progress Series. 237:41-50. This is probably now open access as they make older issues such.

      Based on estuary and ocean work there is more going on here, despite repetitive ‘wheel rediscovery.’ The paper sounds like acid-base stuff, understood by lots of farmers/gardeners, not so much by politicians. There is later work on this, some in progress. Gardner is a good gardener, underwater, at least.

      I suggest that all boaters carry around a basic nitrogen measurement kit, so when they almost get hit by lightning, they can make appropriate measurements. No need to get precision to two decimals. Coast Guard could require it.

  4. I note that the mandatory reference to the CO2 Meme was included. Perhaps that is why it was published. Interesting none the less.

    The current global population could not be fed without the commercial production of fertilisers. Organic activists please note.

  5. Well the nitrogen in the atmosphere has to come from somewhere. It doesn’t replicate and every lightning strike and ensuing rain removes it.

  6. We spend a fortune in terms of both cost and fuel economy reducing NOx from exhaust gases into N2. All in the name of cleaner air. But maybe, just maybe, we are doing the wrong thing. Perhaps higher NOx emissions might actually sequester more CO2 and green the planet.

  7. Hmmmm…
    A Breakthrough Result which Overturns the Paradigm resulting in the need to Rewrite the Textbooks.
    Where have we seen this sort of thing before?
    I have seen many times where such “revolutionary” results ultimately traced back to really sloppy lab work in the chemistry laboratory. Sometimes the work was so bad you wonder why the researchers were let anywhere near the expensive analytical instrumentation.
    I find it very hard to believe that a century of work by geology, soil science and agronomy researchers all overlooked inorganic mineral sources of fixed nitrogen.
    Let’s see what follow on research shows.

    • “A Breakthrough Result which Overturns the Paradigm resulting in the need to Rewrite the Textbooks. Where have we seen this sort of thing before?”
      ..
      It happens often, for example when the side effects of the testing of a blood pressure medication sildenafil were reported.

    • Good question J Mac. And what primary crystalline minerals are the source of Nitrogen, which give it up when they are weathered?

      Igneous minerals – none?
      metamorphic minerals – none?
      Sedimentary minerals –

      Plenty of nitrates in sedimentary evaporite deposits, both modern and ancient, like at Boron Mojave Ca. But these deposits are not particualrly abundant, and are not widespread.

      A fundamental geological problem for this theory?

    • +10
      And the picture in the blog shows rocks with a high N conc. but there is NOTHING alive on land. There appears to be algae in the water though. Bad example!

    • I use fertilization as an excuse to take a piss off the back porch when the bathrooms are occupied. I have noticed that there is a bald patch surrounded by a ring of heavier growth than average that blends into the average as you go further out. So apparently there is an optimal level of urea beyond which it acts as a herbicide. The wife is opposed to my experiments.

  8. No figures then, just this 25% puffed out of somewhere…

    25% of what – I want pounds and ounces if that’s not too much.
    By comparison, farmers a using 500 million tonnes annually (ammonia equivalent)
    Then how much from diesel engines, and yes there is an effective nitrogen tax already here in the UK
    In fact, any time and any place anything is burned.
    Even trees and Biomass

    Then:
    These are supposedly educated folks and the nitrogen is found in ‘sedimentary rock’ they tell us.
    What is sedimentary rock and where did it come from.
    What is it?
    What made it?
    What’s mixed up inside it?

    Clue: Shale is a sedimentary rock
    What is found in (extracted from) shale these days…

    How did that stuff get there?
    Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the nitrogen they’ve found and the ‘fractured shale stuff’ came from the same source?

    I hear the pennies drop round here can’t I?
    They’ve discovered ‘fossil nitrogen’.
    Just like natural-gas/methane is ‘fossil fuel’

    Might put a rather different complexion on things doncha think…..
    (So to today’s wonderation – do folks with exploded heads bother about their complexions? Spots acne etc..)

  9. There are many natural gas fields in the US that contain too much nitrogen to be economical to produce and purify. N2 content is in the range of 25 to 50%. Is there a proposed mechanism to get the nitrogen into the rock?

  10. I have the solution for anybody that believes in global warming A ONE WAY TICKET FOR A TREK TO THE SOUTH POLE

  11. Seriously?
    You mean all that stuff we learned at school 50 years ago about nitrogen fixing bacteria…you mean they’ve rediscovered that? I bet they had a big ‘grant’.

  12. FROM THE ARTICLE:

    For centuries, the thinking has been that all the nitrogen available for plant growth worldwide comes from the atmosphere.

    I’m not sure what fact the above sentence is supposed to express, because people who do gardening know full well (and have known full well for some time) that nitrogen for plants comes from the breakdown (decomposition) of other plants and animals. This is what making compost is all about.

    As someone else said, that’s why we fertilize, either naturally with compost, artificially with commercial fertilizer, or with a combination of both. Urine, by the way, is nitrogen-rich too, and so all the animals peeing probably add something to the mix. In fact, it is recommended, for compost makers such as myself, that gardeners pour some diluted pee on their compost, as part of the mix. Or just “whip it out” (if you’re a guy) and add some straight from the “faucet”.

    • I’m just really confused by the statements being made by the lead author of this study. Am I missing something, or does this researcher fail to understand that plants (most plants) do NOT absorb nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, but rather through the root system?

      Now I’m questioning my own knowledge, because I find it hard to believe that a noted science journal could publish what looks to me like an elementary error in a main claim.

      MY understanding has always been that ecosystems get nitrogen from the soil, because of decay. Maybe bedrock, specifically, is a new discovery, but getting nitrogen from the ground is NOT, and plants do NOT absorb it from the air directly (again, as I have understood it).

      • Robert,

        I suppose that nitrogen from the atmosphere refers to N which was in the air, but was fixed in the soil by microbes or other organisms, making it available to plant roots. But I too am surprised that a researcher wouldn’t know that N of geological origin also exists in soil.

      • This just does not seem to be that new of a discovery. Here have a look:

        https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1029/2002GB001862

        My understanding is that Nitrogen in the soil does not necessarily need to be fixed (depending on your definition of “fixed”, I guess). But I thought that DECAY of all organic materials, via soil organisms, etc. caused nitrogen that was in a form usable to plants via their roots.

        I’m still confused about the specific discovery being claimed here.

        That study I linked to above specifically mentions the bedrock thing. Bedrock, however, seems to be an ADDITIONAL source(to all decayed organic material) that has always provided nitrogen in a usable form to plants.

      • Robert,

        Yes, plants don’t get N directly from the air.

        N-fixation refers to N taken out of the air by organisms, converted to ammonia (NH3) and thus made available to plants. The fixation process frees nitrogen atoms from their triply bonded diatomic form, N2. The organisms can be free living in the soil or in root nodules.

        Other chemical and geological processes also make N available to plant roots. Atmospheric processes also produce small amounts of N compounds usable by plants once rained out of the air.

      • Robert,

        It’s common practice to rotate N-fixing legumes with grain, as for example in my region, peas, beans or canola with wheat, barley or corn.

        But the gain in N is really pretty trivial. We still need N fertilizer. The main advantage of the rotation is that the legume crops use only surface moisture, leaving the deep moisture for the grass crops with deeper roots.

    • If you take nitrogen in the atmosphere as occurring first, then plants and animals second, and nitrogen containing sedimentary rocks coming in third, which is the first cause for development of life in this scenario?

      • Z,

        The organic chemical compound constituents of life don’t need Earth’s present atmosphere or its rocks to form. They are formed in space at remarkably low reaction temperatures from simpler compounds of the most abundant elements in the universe. They also form spontaneously under early Earth conditions.

        Meteorites contain not just the lipids, sugars, phosphate groups, nucleobases and amino acids involved in life, but far more organic compounds not used directly in biochemistry. Vast clouds of organic (carbon-based) compounds drift in interstellar space.

        The elements H, C, O, N, etc are made in stars, then react with each other in space and on earth to form hydrocarbons, carbohydrates and more complex compounds, the building blocks of life.

      • I get that organic molecules don’t need Earths atmosphere, however, the article seems to indicate the sedimentary strata of the Grand Canyon are packed with nitrogen. If I recall correctly, these rocks were laid down in the time period since about 300 million years ago. No mention of other rock types.

        So I was somewhat suggesting that the nitrogen supply of the Grand Canyon must have originated in the atmosphere, possibly laid down with the rock strata over time by dissolved plants and animal sources which fixed or used the nitrogen. Continental plates have moved around the globe and many have been submerged.

        I just read yesterday on WUWT about the plight of the Easter Islanders who supposedly ground up local stone for gardening purposes, so this study result seems to be rather obvious. Unless igneous and metamorphic rock are full of nitrogen, I would suppose the atmosphere is the main source.

  13. So, my complementary plant garden plots were a waste of time & effort? I do notice that in my small containers of clover…that ended up being a mix of clover, shamrock, and in one case bermuda grass… the ones with a mix of nitrogen fixing symbiotes and plants dependent on nitrogen already fixed in the soil seem to be flourishing best. Even the grass/grain sorghum has symbiotes that fix nitrogen for it. Rabbits and chickens do a fine job of concentrating bio-available nitrogen through the compost box/heap/bin.

    But as to rocks getting around, I saw several articles, today, on tiny glass beads found scattered across Antarctica being tracked to a meteorite strike probably somewhere in SE Asia; one about solar and cosmic dust particles isolated from rain-gutter debris in Paris & elsewhere. Southern Ohio has lots of shale, limestone, and glacial debris. The Bad-lands of the Dakotas shows sediment deposits (from erosion of the Rockies) having been eroded in turn, I don’t know, from 30-100 feet deep, possibly more. There’s all that fine white silicon dioxide
    /quartz sand along the Gulf coast. Imagine what the river delta deposits must contain.

  14. Nitrogen makes up 78% of the atmosphere, it forms NOx in forest fires and in electric storms. It is soluble in water. It forms ammonia in organic reactions. It occurs in nitrate salts and brines. Yeah, there is a nitrogen cycle. So some sedimentary rocks will contain it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a big surprise. Ya know, scepticism is a natural way of thinking.

  15. Something doesn’t really add up here.

    Not only is nitrogen content generally very low in rocks, it is also fairly easily measured and quantified. A little bit of nitrogen should add up to a lot of rock being weathered, which also should be very noticeable. These conclusions touted don’t pass the smell test for me. (More perspective: A few years ago some group doubled the estimated tropical-ocean photosynthetic nitrogen fixation rate. Uncertainties are still enormous in the nitrogen cycle, which gives extra scope for people to make unsubstantiated claims for many years to come.)

    Perhaps it’s just the usual media misreporting of an already exaggerated academic claim, but I don’t even consider it worth researching the original published article. In fact the major point of peer review in science is that it is there to cut out most of the stuff that is not worth reading at all, which is most of it.

  16. One of the most complicated systems is that of the chemistry of hypoxic, sometimes azoic, not metabolically dead, and actually extremely productive areas that are blamed on nitrogen. From this, undersaturated oxygen areas, which are quite common in the ocean, are represented by fish skeletons all over the place on Google Earth, many with poor documentation. I am not up to date on this, but not too long ago they did not know where a significant portion of the nitrogen went. Many marine biologists do not seem to understand mass balance and fluxes. Early in this century nitrogen was said to be “demonized” in print by one who understood and studied these. The nitrogen and carbon cycles used to be taught as the most complicated.

  17. Maybe needless to say, but nitrogen is essential to life as known on Earth. Not only does it feature in the amino acids which comprise proteins, but the nucleobases which code for amino acids in the nucleic acids RNA and DNA are carbon-nitrogen-hydrogen-oxygen compounds, ie nitrogenous carbohydrates.

    Here’s the chemical structure of the most important of the five nucleobases in nucleic acids, adenine:

  18. Da X-tra Nitrogen b from SCR slip – ammonia injected into exhaust streams (ahead of heavy metal catalysts) of coal and gas fired plants to “control NOx”…I hear they even do it in big pick up trucks these days…it’s stupid like using hydrated lime to control SOx (hydrated lime production being CO2 intensive). The allowable ppm of Ammonia (NH3…yes made from Methane, ie, nat gas) slip kills plants in all eco systems (nitrogen “burn”) and thus the rule makers love it as it serves a trinity of purposes: 1) the puppet masters profit from laws they make 2) death of relatively low impact but vital industry and 3) death of living CO2 absorbing biomass…perfect!

    • The genius of socialist globalists is to classify all elements essential to life as pollutants, which must be taxed. Wait until they get around to hydrogen and oxygen, or better yet, their compound, the deadly chemical dihydrogen monoxide!

    • Good question.

      The fact is that carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen are all essential nutrients, the more of which, the better. IOW, the opposite of “pollutants”.

  19. Carbon sequestration = final solution
    The term is disgusting and a testament to the duplicity and ignorance of the useful idiot.
    Pass the manure please.

  20. Are the carbonate rich rocks from the Colorado Plateau, through which the Colorado River has cut to afford the header view from the Nankoweep Granaries, particularly rich in Nitrogen? If so, what about the alternating shallow ocean (above the carbonate compensation depth) to fluvial Paleozoic section above the river at Nankoweep, in a generally tropical paleolatitude; lead to more N fixation?

  21. Type I diamonds, which make up 99% of all diamonds, contain nitrogen bound to carbon atoms in it’s crystal lattice. Light absorption in these creates coloured diamonds, most commonly yellow. Diamonds formed in the mantle at depths of 150 to 180km in what is known as the diamond stability field in a layer below thick, cooler stable platform crust >2
    .5 billion years ago. Yes, nitrogen in the mantle rocks.

    Formation of diamond pipes is an extraordinary geological event. Magma from the mantle at depths some 200 – 220 km containing no diamonds, rises up, punching through the diamond stability field at ~20km/hr and entraining diamonds in it. It accelerates to ~40km/hr where it penetrates into the base of the crust and, loaded with volatile, continues to accelerate as the pressure reduces attaining a velocity of ~1200km/hr as it blasts through the Earth’s surface, sending lava up into the clouds leaving a gaping void temporarily until the 10s of millions of tonnes of diamond bearing material fall largely back into the hole along with souvenirs from the surface like trees, local rocks, etc that are blasted upwards and others at the edge toppling into the hole. A few latter puffs and rattles later, the material solidifies into a carrot-shaped kimberlite (or rarer, champagne glass-shaped lamproite rock).

    Fantastic, huh! Here is picture of a chunk of redwood found at 300m depth in the Ekati diamond mine at the Arctic circle. It was preserved as real wood and is dated at 53 million years. Hmmm… A California climate above the Arctic circle in the Eocene period. Global warming unprecedented you say. Planetary doom you say? I say Garden of Eden Earth if we get the warming we are promised.

    https://www.livescience.com/23374-fossil-forest-redwood-diamond-mine.html

  22. Nitrogen is very dangerous. If the concentration of N2 in the atmosphere were to increase by just 25% then all animal life on Earth would become extinct.

  23. omg … it never ceases to amaze me how ignorant people are of basic geology concepts.

    Geo = Earth
    ology = Study of

    oh yeah, wow, Geology just might be able to inform one about the entire earth, solid-liquid-gas-plasma-space system.

    Where (on earth) do they think the atmosphere and oceans came from?

    scheeeeeeech! Eeeeeeeediots.

  24. “While there were hints that plants could use rock-derived nitrogen, this discovery shatters the paradigm that the ultimate source of nitrogen is the atmosphere. A discovery of this magnitude will open up a new era of research on this essential nutrient.”

    Read- CO2 is looking a bit dicey so we’d better pick on nitrogen if the grants are to keep flowing.

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