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Global patterns of terrestrial nitrogen and phosphorus limitation


Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) limitation constrains the magnitude of terrestrial carbon uptake in response to elevated carbon dioxide and climate change. However, global maps of nutrient limitation are still lacking. Here we examined global N and P limitation using the ratio of site-averaged leaf N and P resorption efficiencies of the dominant species across 171 sites. We evaluated our predictions using a global database of N- and P-limitation experiments based on nutrient additions at 106 and 53 sites, respectively. Globally, we found a shift from relative P to N limitation for both higher latitudes and precipitation seasonality and lower mean annual temperature, temperature seasonality, mean annual precipitation and soil clay fraction. Excluding cropland, urban and glacial areas, we estimate that 18% of the natural terrestrial land area is significantly limited by N, whereas 43% is relatively P limited. The remaining 39% of the natural terrestrial land area could be co-limited by N and P or weakly limited by either nutrient alone. This work provides both a new framework for testing nutrient limitation and a benchmark of N and P limitation for models to constrain predictions of the terrestrial carbon sink.

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Fig. 1: Spatial distributions in the PRENP database.
Fig. 2: Potential predictors.
Fig. 3: Global mapping of N and P limitation.

Data availability

All data supporting the findings of this study are available in figshare (

Code availability

The code used in this work can be accessed by contacting the corresponding authors.


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This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41877328, 41630750 and 31400381), Fok Ying-Tong Education Foundation (161015) and Project of State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface and Resource Ecology of Beijing Normal University (2017-ZY-07). C.T. was supported by a Lawrence Fellow award through the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), by the US Department of Energy (grant no. DE-AC52-07NA27344) and by the LLNL-LDRD Program (grant no. 20-ERD-055). We are grateful to J. Tan, J. S. Fu and F. Dentener for providing data on the global N deposition. We thank P. Vitousek for his useful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript and Stanford University for its visiting scholars program.

Author information




E.D. conceived the project. R.B.J., C.T., A.F.A.P., A.A. and C.J.V.L. contributed ideas to the analysis. E.D., N.X., and X.W. compiled the database. E.D., X.Z., C.T. and C.J.V.L. analysed the data. E.D., R.B.J., C.T., A.F.A.P. and A.A. wrote and revised the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Enzai Du or Robert B. Jackson.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editors: Tamara Goldin, Xujia Jiang.

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Supplementary Information

The Supplementary Information contains Supplementary Figs. 1–7, Tables 1–9 and references.

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Du, E., Terrer, C., Pellegrini, A.F.A. et al. Global patterns of terrestrial nitrogen and phosphorus limitation. Nat. Geosci. 13, 221–226 (2020).

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