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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Asian dust providing key nutrients for California’s giant sequoias

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Posted: 28 Mar 2017 05:29 AM PDT ScienceDaily article here

Dust from as far away as the Gobi Desert in Asia is providing more nutrients than previously thought for plants, including giant sequoias, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, a team of scientists have found. The scientists found that dust from the Gobi Desert and the Central Valley of California contributed more phosphorus for plants in the Sierra Nevadas than bedrock weathering, which is breaking down of rock buried beneath the soil. Phosophorus is one of the basic elements that plants need to survive, and the Sierra Nevadas are considered a phosphorus-limited ecosystem.

The study may help scientists predict the impacts of climate change which is expected to increase drought and create more desert conditions around the world, possibly including California. If that happens, based on these findings, scientists expect a lot more dust moving in the atmosphere, and likely bringing phosphorus and important nutrients to far flung mountainous ecosystems….

…The percentage of Asian dust ranged from 20 percent on average at the lowest elevation, to 45 percent on average at the highest elevation. The percentages were higher at the higher elevation sites because dust tends to travel high in the air stream and not fall unless it hits an object, such as a mountain. The researchers found that the amount of dust from Central Valley sources was greater at lower elevations compared to higher elevations. That was expected, but they also found that more Central Valley dust was entering higher elevations later in the dry season than just after the spring rains….

…The researchers believe their findings will hold true for other mountainous ecosystems around the world and have implications for predicting forest response to changes in climate and land use.

S. M. Aciego, C. S. Riebe, S. C. Hart, M. A. Blakowski, C. J. Carey, S. M. Aarons, N. C. Dove, J. K. Botthoff, K. W. W. Sims, E. L. Aronson. Dust outpaces bedrock in nutrient supply to montane forest ecosystems. Nature Communications, 2017; 8: 14800 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14800

Note: Co-author, Dr. Chelsea Carey, is Point Blue’s Soil Ecologist.

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