There is no scientific mystery as to whether global pollution is causing climate change that represents a threat to humanity. Also, there is no controversy when it comes to the fact that fertilizers that contain nitrogen, contribute to the greenhouse effect, one of the causes of the climate change. On the other hand, it is also a known fact that nitrogen is essential for plant growth and plants actually pick up large quantities of carbon dioxide produced by gas and other industrial emissions from the air. A most recent study done by environmental scientists at the University of California at Davis dealing with the production of nitrogen on Earth, could actually not only solve a scientific mystery, but also change current climate change projections.

The case of ‘missing’ nitrogen

In their study “Convergent evidence for widespread rock nitrogen sources in Earth’s surface environment”, published in the magazine Science, the team of UC scientists has come to the conclusion that at least 26 percent of nitrogen comes from Earth’s bedrock, particularly limestone rock. Until now, it was thought that all of it came from the air.

Professor Ben Houlton, leader of the project says that "This runs counter the centuries-long paradigm that has laid the foundation for the environmental sciences,” and resolves a mystery of that confounded environmental scientists as to where the ‘missing’ nitrogen came from. Houlton is also of the opinion that the nitrogen released from the rocks may allow forests and grasslands to absorb more Carbon Dioxide Emissions than scientists previously thought was possible.

This nitrogen found in rocks, particularly those of limestone origin can enter the ecosystem when rocks weather or when they chemically react with water. Most of the rocks that produce nitrogen are produced in the Earth’s northern regions but also in the Himalayas and Andes.

The climate change implications

Since there is a huge effect that plants have on sequestering carbon dioxide emissions, conservation considerations would have to have in mind the potential that certain rocks have on carbon uptake.

This will require detailed mapping of nutrient profiles in rocks. To this effect, Houlton adds that geology can serve as a good guide to what we have to conserve on Earth.

Commenting on the results of the research, Kendra McLauchlan, programme director in the National Science Foundation's division of environmental biology, the institution which co-funded this project said that “a discovery of this magnitude will open up a new era of research” on Nitrogen, its sources and effects.