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Rotting leaf litter study could lead to more accurate climate models

ples were chosen to represent a wide range of chemical composition.

At each site, dozens of bags were staked to the ground and left to rot. Every year, researchers at the sites would remove a subset of bags so their contents could be dried, weighed and sent to a central lab at Oregon State University for analysis. At the central lab, the contents were weighed a second time and analyzed for their chemical composition.

"The most important component of this study is that we've developed a generic global law that can predict large-scale patterns in litter mass decay rates and nitrogen release from litter," said William Parton, senior research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University and co-lead author of the study. "There are a lot of global nutrient cycling models out there, but the model we've developed is based on only two parameters, and thus is more scientifically elegant and more widely applicable than the models currently being used."

More than three-fourths of the air we breathe contains nitrogen, an essential element found in all amino acids, the building blocks of protein. In the soil, organic forms of nitrogen are converted by bacteria into the inorganic forms of ammonium and nitrate, primary nutrients plants need for growth. Lack of nitrogen limits plant growth in most regions of the world.

The researchers point out that the cycling of nutrients and carbon in the ecosystem is a key variable in climate change models. "As people try to construct computer models and predict future climate changes, being able to accurately predict carbon and nitrogen cycling will play a key role," said Silver.

While the study improves the ability of scientists to predict the rate of nitrogen release in climate models, the researchers point out that the findings could also improve predictions for the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from decomposing litter.

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18-Jan-2007


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