US ecology dramatically altered by fertilizers and acid rain

g carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When trees grow and mature they remove carbon dioxide from the air. The ability of trees to grow and absorb more carbon is intimately related to the availability of nitrogen.

The remote areas of Chile and Argentina provided prime areas for conducting the research. In North America the ground is tainted with large amounts of inorganic nitrogen from widespread use of nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, as well as acid rain brought on by fossil fuel burning. In the South American areas the researchers studied, there is no fertilizer use and almost no influx of fossil fuel emissions.

To reach their conclusions, the scientists spent five years preparing experiments in remote Chilean temperate forests and another five years conducting detailed analyses of water in those forests. They also conducted one-time tests in a dozen other remote areas in Chile and Argentina to prove that the preponderance of organic nitrogen they observed was not unique to the site they were studying. At the same time, they repeated their measurements in three U.S. virgin forests, two in the Smokey Mountains and one in Pennsylvania. All of the areas studied contained unlogged primary forests, in ecosystems that have developed in place for 4,000 years to over 20,000 years.

The results also suggest that in North America the impact of nitrogen pollution from acid rain and agriculture may be more dramatic in years to come than previously thought. That's because North American forests are still young, after recovering from past logging and agricultural clear-cutting. Young trees use nitrogen from the soil for growth, but as they mature, they sequester less nitrogen from the environment. When that happens, more inorganic nitrogen will be available to run off into rivers and groundwater.

Another interesting finding, said Perakis, was that the nitrogen cycle -- the way nitrogen compounds are exchanged between plants, soil, waterways and the a

Contact: Cynthia O'Carroll
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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