Soil nutrients affected by climate change could hurt plant production

According to a recent study, levels of nutrients in soil could be significantly affected by an increase in climate change.


Nov. 1, 2013 -- According to a recent study, levels of nutrients in soil could be significantly affected by an increase in climate change.

The findings are presented in a report published in Nature that details how soil changes may occur as drylands of the world become even drier. Further, it discusses the implications of how these nutrient imbalances could affect the lives of one-fifth of the world's population, including people living in Arizona.

Co-author Matthew Bowker, assistant professor of forest soils and ecosystem ecology at Northern Arizona University, was involved with the project since 2009. He explained that most of the 17 nutrients that plants need to grow to their potential are soil resources such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The statistical model he helped develop for the study suggests that as the climate becomes more arid, nitrogen will decrease and phosphorus will increase.

"Both are essential for plant growth, and both are typical components of fertilizer, but both need to be around in the right quantities for plant growth to proceed most efficiently," Bowker said.

Drylands, which are defined by predominantly lower levels of moisture, cover about 41 percent of the earth's surface. The study suggests that people who depend on those ecosystems for crops, livestock forage, fuel, and fiber will find their resources increasingly restrained.

In Arizona, Bowker said, the projected decrease in plant production could magnify the impact of dust storms, which have been increasing in recent decades. "We can probably expect more and more dust in the air," he said.

The project involved visits by research teams in 16 countries to 224 locations on every continent except Antarctica. Bowker led one of the sampling teams, which visited 10 study sites in northern Arizona and Utah. Those sites ranged from dry, grassy shrublands with low precipitation to relatively wet sagebrush ecosystems.

"This is a testament to the power of networked science," Bowker said, adding that it would have been "prohibitively expensive" for any one researcher or research group to complete the project.

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