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Large source of nitrate, a potential water contaminant, found in near-surface desert soils
Date:2/29/2008

RIVERSIDE, Calif. A UC Riverside-led study in the Mojave Desert, Calif., has found that soils under desert pavement have an unusually high concentration of nitrate, a type of salt, close to the surface. Vulnerable to erosion by rain and wind if the desert pavement is disrupted, this vast source of nitrate could contaminate surface and groundwaters, posing an environmental risk.

Study results appear in the March issue of Geology.

Desert pavement is a naturally occurring, single layer of closely fitted rock fragments. A common land surface feature in arid regions, it has been estimated to cover nearly half of North Americas desert landscapes.

Nitrate, a water soluble nitrogen compound, is a nutrient essential to life. It is also, however, a contaminant. When present in excess in aquatic systems, it results in algal blooms. High levels of nitrate in drinking water have been associated with serious health issues, including methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby disease, marked by a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood), miscarriages and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Salts, including nitrate, are formed in deserts as water evaporates on dry lake beds. These salts then get blown on to the desert pavement by winds. Other contributors of nitrate to desert pavement soils are atmospheric deposition (the gradual deposition of nutrient-rich particulate matter from the air), and soil bacteria, which convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate that is usable by plants and other organisms.

Ordinarily, in moist soils, plants and microbes readily take up nitrate, and water flushing through the soils leaches the soils of excess nitrate.

But desert pavement, formed over thousands of years, impedes the infiltration of water in desert soil, restricting plant development and resulting in desert pavement soils becoming nitrate-rich (and saltier) with time.

After water, nitrogen is the most limiting facto
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Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
iqbal@ucr.edu
951-827-6050
University of California - Riverside
Source:Eurekalert  

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