The Phosphorus Cycle in Nature


    FOR his presidential address to the Geological Section of the Congress of the South Eastern Union of Scientific Societies, held on October 14, Dr. K. P. Oakley took as his subject "Man and the Migrations of Phosphorus". For some time after the earth's formation, the phosphorus cycle in the sea was simple, the phosphate ions being built up into the earliest forms of organic life and released again at their death, the only loss occurring through the precipitation of phosphate ions accumulated at the lower levels, with the formation of sedimentary rock phosphate beds. Following the emergence of life from the sea and the colonization of dry land, a soil-plant-animal-soil cycle arose, from which phosphorus was removed in small quantities in the formation of bone beds, fossil fish or guano deposits. With the development of agriculture in historic times, however, the phosphorus cycle has been seriously upset, for systematic cropping reduces the reserves in the soil more quickly than they can be renewed from fresh sources. In the past few centuries man has attempted to restore the phosphorus balance by the use of fertilizers, derived largely from natural deposits; but he has also accelerated the transference of phosphorus from plant and animal life to the sea, thus speeding up its cyclical migration in a two-fold manner. Although this has been of undoubted benefit to man, it will ultimately lead to a state of bankruptcy with regard to the element. The world reserves of workable mineral phosphate are within measurable distance of exhaustion, and although new sources may be discovered, a planned economy in their utilization seems called for, as no substitute for phosphate exists and it is essential to the survival of a large human population. The address, which includes a historical account of phosphatic fertilizers, is to be published in the January issue of the South Eastern Naturalist and Antiquary.

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