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Nitrogen fertilizer remains in soils and leaks towards groundwater for decades, researchers find

Mayer is an internationally recognized expert in the use of stable isotopes to track contaminants in the environment.

The French-U of C study is the first that tracks, using stable isotope "fingerprinting," the fate of fertilizer N remaining in the soil zone over several decades.

The research team used a stable isotope of nitrogen, N-15, as a tracer to track fertilizer nitrogen applied in 1982 to sugar beet and winter wheat crops on a pair of two-metre-square plots at a site in France.

Over the 30-year study, the researchers measured the amount of N-15 labelled fertilizer N taken up by plants and they quantified the amount of fertilizer N remaining in the soil.

The novel aspect of their study was that they subsequently determined the long-term fate of this fertilizer N 'pool' retained in the soil. Their measurements of seepage water from locations two metres deep in the soil revealed the amount of fertilizer nitrate leaking towards the groundwater.

The team found that 61 to 65 per cent of the N-15 fertilizer applied in 1982 was taken up by the sugar beet and wheat plants over the 30-year study.

However, 32 to 37 per cent of the fertilizer N remained in the soil organic matter in 1985 or three years after application, while 12 to 15 per cent still lingered in the soils after three decades.

Between eight to 12 per cent of the fertilizer N applied in 1982 had leaked in the form of nitrate toward groundwater during the 30 years, and will continue to leak at low rates "for at least another five decades, much longer than previously thought," the study says.

The scientists predict that about 15 per cent of the initially applied fertilizer N will be exported from the soils towards the groundwater over a time span of almost one century after the 1982 fertilizer application.

Mayer speculates that if the same research were done in Alberta, the findings would be similar in terms of fertiliz

Contact: Marie-Helene Thibeault
University of Calgary

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Nitrogen fertilizer remains in soils and leaks towards groundwater for decades, researchers find
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