Nitrogen fertilizer remains in soil, leaks toward groundwater for decades, finds study

A new study reveals that nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops lingers in the soil and leaks out as nitrate for decades toward groundwater.

Oct. 22, 2013 -- A new study from scientists in France and at the University of Calgary has found that nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops lingers in the soil and leaks out as nitrate for decades toward groundwater.

Thirty years after synthetic nitrogen fertilizer had been applied to crops in 1982, about 15 percent of the nitrogen still remained in soil organic matter, the scientists found. Likewise, after three decades, approximately 10 percent of the nitrogen had seeped through the soil toward the groundwater and will continue to leak in low amounts for at least another 50 years.

The study was led by researcher Mathieu Sebilo at the Université Pierre et Marie Currie in Paris, France, and by Bernhard Mayer, professor of geochemistry and head of the Applied Geochemistry Group at the University of Calgary, and included several research organizations in France. Their paper, "Long-term fate of nitrate fertilizer in agricultural soils," was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The findings show that losses of fertilizer nitrogen toward the groundwater occur at low rates but over many decades, says Mayer. That means it could take longer than previously thought to reduce nitrate contamination in groundwater, including in aquifers that supply drinking water in North America and elsewhere, he says. "There's a lot of fertilizer nitrogen that has accumulated in agricultural soils over the last few decades which will continue to leak as nitrate toward groundwater."

Canada and the U.S. regulate the amount of nitrate allowed in drinking water. In the 1980s, surveys by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) showed that nitrate contamination had probably impacted more public and domestic water supply wells in the U.S. than any other contaminant.

The new study is the first that tracks, using stable isotope "fingerprinting," the fate of fertilizer nitrogen remaining in the soil zone over several decades. Further, the research team used a stable isotope of nitrogen, N-15, as a tracer to track fertilizer nitrogen applied in 1982 to sugar beet and winter wheat crops on a pair of two-meter-square plots at a site in France.

Over the 30-year study, the researchers measured the amount of N-15 labeled fertilizer nitrogen consumed by plants, and they quantified the amount of it remaining in the soil. The novel aspect of their study was that they subsequently determined the long-term fate of this fertilizer nitrogen 'pool' retained in the soil. Their measurements of seepage water from locations two meters deep in the soil revealed the amount of fertilizer nitrate leaking toward the groundwater.

The team found that 61 to 65 percent of the N-15 fertilizer applied in 1982 was taken up by the sugar beet and wheat plants over the 30-year study. However, 32 to 37 percent of the fertilizer nitrogen remained in the soil organic matter in 1985, or three years after application, while 12 to 15 percent still lingered in the soils after three decades.

Between eight to 12 percent of the fertilizer nitrogen applied in 1982 had leaked in the form of nitrate toward groundwater during the 30 years, and will continue to leak at low rates "for at least another five decades, much longer than previously thought," the study says. Accordingly, the scientists predict that about 15 percent of the initially applied fertilizer nitrogen will be exported from the soils toward the groundwater over a time span of almost one century after the 1982 fertilizer application.

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