Scientists braved ticks and a tiger to discover how human activities have perturbed the nitrogen cycle in tropical forests. Studies at two remote Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory sites in Panama and Thailand show the first evidence of long-term effects of nitrogen pollution in tropical trees.
"Air pollution is fertilizing tropical forests with one of the most important nutrients for growth," said S. Joseph Wright, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. "We compared nitrogen in leaves from dried specimens collected in 1968 with nitrogen in samples of new leaves collected in 2007. Leaf nitrogen concentration and the proportion of heavy to light nitrogen isotopes increased in the last 40 years, just as they did in another experiment when we applied fertilizer to the forest floor."
Nitrogen is an element created in stars under high temperatures and pressures. Under normal conditions, it is a colorless, odorless gas that does not readily react with other substances. Air consists of more than 75% nitrogen. But nitrogen also plays a big role in life as an essential component of proteins. When nitrogen gas is zapped by lightning, or absorbed by soil bacteria called "nitrogen fixers," it is converted into other "active" forms that can be used by animals and plants. Humans fix nitrogen by the Haber process, which converts nitrogen gas into ammonianow a principal ingredient in fertilizers. Today, nitrogen fixation by humans has approximately doubled the amount of reactive nitrogen emitted.
Nitrogen comes in two forms or isotopes: atoms that have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons. In the case of nitrogen, the isotopes are 14N and 15N, although only about one in 300 nitrogen atoms is the heavier form. Imagine nitrogen in the ecosystem like a bowl of popcorn. Normally the ratio of popped (light) to unpopped (heavy) kernels stays the same, but when someone starts to eat the
|Contact: Beth King|
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute