, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 67-79

Nitrogen loss from deserts in the southwestern United States

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Abstract

A lower limit for nitrogen loss from desert ecosystems in the southwestern United States was estimated by comparing nitrogen inputs to the amount of nitrogen stored in desert soils and vegetation. Atmospheric input of nitrogen for the last 10 000 years was conservatively estimated to be 2.99 kg N/m2. The amount of nitrogen stored in desert soils was calculated to be 0.604 kg N/m3 using extant data from 212 profiles located in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. The average amount of nitrogen stored in desert vegetation is approximately 0.036 kg N/m2.

Desert conditions have existed in the southwestern United States throughout the last 10 000 years. Under such conditions, vertical leaching of nitrogen below a depth of 1 m is small (ca. 0.028 kg N/m2 over 10 000 years) and streamflow losses of nitrogen from the desert landscape are negligible. Thus, the discrepancy found between nitrogen input and storage represents the amount of nitrogen lost to the atmosphere during the last 10 000 years. Loss of nitrogen to the atmosphere was calculated to be 2.32 kg N/m2, which is 77% of the atmospheric inputs.

Processes resulting in nitrogen loss to the atmosphere from desert ecosystems include wind erosion, ammonia volatilization, nitrification, and denitrification. Our analysis cannot assess the relative importance of these processes, but each is worthy of future research efforts.