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Changing sources of nutrients during four million years of ecosystem development


As soils develop in humid environments, rock-derived elements are gradually lost, and under constant conditions it seems that ecosystems should reach a state of profound and irreversible nutrient depletion. We show here that inputs of elements from the atmosphere can sustain the productivity of Hawaiian rainforests on highly weathered soils. Cations are supplied in marine aerosols and phosphorus is deposited in dust from central Asia, which is over 6,000 km away.

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Figure 1: Location of the study sites.
Figure 2: Plant-available nutrients in soil and nutrients in leaves.
Figure 3: Change in soil element content integrated over the top metre of soil, compared with element contents in the lava parent material38.
Figure 4: Comparison of Ca inputs from substrate and the atmosphere.
Figure 5: Indicators of the sources of Sr and Ca measured for each site.
Figure 6: Map showing estimates of the long-term (integrated glacial plus interglacial) rate of dust deposition to the Pacific Ocean (from. ref. 58).
Figure 7: The mass fraction of dust-derived soil component based on Th/Hf ratios, Eu anomalies, and quartz content plotted against the dust mass fraction derived from Nd isotopes for the 150,000-year-old site.
Figure 8: Comparison of phosphorus inputs from substrate and the atmosphere.


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This research was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, by the NSF, and by NASA-MTPE. For logistical assistance and access to sites, we are indebted to USDA–National Resources Conservation Service, USGS–Biological Resources Division, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii DL&NR, the Nature Conservancy, and Parker Ranch.

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Chadwick, O., Derry, L., Vitousek, P. et al. Changing sources of nutrients during four million years of ecosystem development. Nature 397, 491–497 (1999).

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