Scientists track phosphate to better understand global warming

Shake a snow globe and clear skies turn to a blizzard in your hand. The Earth is a similarly closed system, with chemical reactions that occur in soil affecting chemical reactions that occur in skies and seas. Chemistry is destiny.

Advanced technologies and methods are helping scientists take a new look at one of the Earth's most abundant elements - phosphorus - to better understand how it cycles through soil, sea and living organisms. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for all organisms including plants, which through photosynthesis remove carbon dioxide - the greenhouse gas most responsible for global warming - from the atmosphere and bind it into organic matter. Phosphorus also plays a key role in the cycles of such biologically essential elements as nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Because of analytical limitations, little was known about phosphorus cycling until recently.

"We're at the stage where we can make another jump in our understanding of phosphate cycling because of the availability of new technology and new methods that can be applied to natural systems," says Adina Paytan, an assistant professor in Stanford's Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences. Paytan is leading a special session Dec. 15 with Stanford postdoctoral scholar Barbara Cade-Menun at this year's San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), an international scientific society with more than 35,000 members dedicated to advancing the understanding of Earth and its environment.

The new technologies and methods allow scientists to characterize phosphorus compounds in water and soil, estimate how fast phosphate cycles through natural reservoirs, estimate long-term phosphorus burial in the oceans through geologic time, pinpoint phosphorus sources in different ecosystems, determine fluctuations in phosphate concentrations at certain times and places, and study the effects of phosphorus pollution in estuaries and lakes.

In recent years, AGU meetin

Contact: Dawn Levy
Stanford University

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