Drylands cover more than 40% of the terrestrial surface, and their global extent and socioecological importance will increase in the future due to the forecasted increases in aridity driven by climate change. Despite the essential role of metallic micronutrients in life chemistry and ecosystem functioning, it is virtually unknown how their bioavailability changes along aridity gradients at the global scale. Here, we analysed soil total and available copper, iron, manganese and zinc in 143 drylands from all continents, except Antarctica, covering a broad range of aridity and soil conditions. We found that total and available micronutrient concentrations in dryland soils were low compared with averages commonly found in soils of natural and agricultural ecosystems globally. Aridity negatively affected the availability of all micronutrients evaluated, mainly indirectly by increasing soil pH and decreasing soil organic matter. Remarkably, the available Fe:Zn ratio decreased exponentially as the aridity increased, pointing to stoichiometric alterations. Our findings suggest that increased aridity conditions due to climate change will limit the availability of essential micronutrients for organisms, particularly iron and zinc, which together with other adverse effects (for example, reduced water availability) may pose serious threats to key ecological processes and services, such as food production, in drylands worldwide.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Prăvălie, R. Drylands extent and environmental issues. A global approach. Earth Sci. Rev. 161, 259–278 (2016).
Schimel, D. S. Drylands in the Earth system. Science 327, 418–419 (2010).
Fu, Q. & Feng, S. Responses of terrestrial aridity to global warming. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 119, 7863–7875 (2014).
Huang, J., Yu, H., Guan, X., Wang, G. & Guo, R. Accelerated dryland expansion under climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 166–171 (2016).
Maestre, F. T. et al. Structure and functioning of dryland ecosystems in a changing world. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 47, 215–237 (2016).
Yuan, Z. et al. Experimental and observational studies find contrasting responses of soil nutrients to climate change. eLife 6, e23255 (2017).
Luo, W. et al. Thresholds in decoupled soil–plant elements under changing climatic conditions. Plant Soil 409, 159–173 (2016).
Marschner, B. & Kalbitz, K. Controls of bioavailability and biodegradability of dissolved organic matter in soils. Geoderma 113, 211–235 (2003).
Bowker, M. A., Belnap, J., Davidson, D. W. & Goldstein, H. Correlates of biological soil crust abundance across a continuum of spatial scales: support for a hierarchical conceptual model. J. Appl. Ecol. 43, 152–163 (2006).
Broadley, M., Brown, P., Cakmak, I., Rengel, Z. & Zhao, F. in Marschner’s Mineral Nutrition of Higher Plants 191–248 (Academic Press, 2012).
Welch, R. M. & Shuman, L. Micronutrient nutrition of plants. CRC. Crit. Rev. Plant Sci. 14, 49–82 (1995).
Sherman, A. R. Zinc, copper, and iron nutriture and immunity. J. Nutr. 122, 604–609 (1992).
Thompson, B. & Amoroso, L. Combating Micronutrient Deficiencies: Food-based Approaches (CABI, 2010).
Spears, J. W. Micronutrients and immune function in cattle. Proc. Nutr. Soc. 59, 587–594 (2000).
Jones, G. D. et al. Selenium deficiency risk predicted to increase under future climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 2484–2853 (2017).
McBride, M. B. in Advances in Soil Science (ed. Stewart, B. A.) 1–56 (Springer New York, 1989).
Kabata-Pendias, A. Soil–plant transfer of trace elements—an environmental issue. Geoderma 122, 143–149 (2004).
Plaza, C. et al. Soil resources and element stocks in drylands to face global issues. Sci. Rep. 8, 13788 (2018).
Ptacnik, R. et al. Applications of ecological stoichiometry for sustainable acquisition of ecosystem services. Oikos 109, 52–62 (2005).
Sardans, J., Rivas-Ubach, A. & Peñuelas, J. The C:N:P stoichiometry of organisms and ecosystems in a changing world: a review and perspectives. Perspect. Plant Ecol. Evol. Syst. 14, 33–47 (2012).
Robinson, L. W., Ericksen, P. J., Chesterman, S. & Worden, J. S. Sustainable intensification in drylands: what resilience and vulnerability can tell us. Agric. Syst. 135, 133–140 (2015).
Adeel, Z., Safriel, U., Niemeijer, D. & White, R. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Desertification Synthesis (World Resources Institute, 2005).
Reynolds, J. F. et al. Global desertification: building a science for dryland development. Science 316, 847–851 (2007).
Delgado-Baquerizo, M. et al. Decoupling of soil nutrient cycles as a function of aridity in global drylands. Nature 502, 672–676 (2013).
Kabata-Pendias, A. & Pendias, H. Trace Elements in Soils and Plants (CRC Press, 2001).
Lindsay, W. L. Chemical Equilibria in Soils (John Wiley and Sons, 1979).
Garnett, T. et al. Sustainable intensification in agriculture: premises and policies. Science 341, 33–34 (2013).
Gupta, U. C., Wu, K. & Liang, S. Micronutrients in soils, crops, and livestock. Earth Sci. Front. 15, 110–125 (2008).
Graham, T. W. Trace element deficiencies in cattle. Vet. Clin. North Am. Food Anim. Pract. 7, 153–215 (1991).
Luo, W. et al. A threshold reveals decoupled relationship of sulfur with carbon and nitrogen in soils across arid and semi-arid grasslands in northern China. Biogeochemistry 127, 141–153 (2016).
Sardans, J. & Peñuelas, J. Potassium: a neglected nutrient in global change. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 24, 261–275 (2015).
Kobayashi, T. & Nishizawa, N. K. Iron uptake, translocation, and regulation in higher plants. Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. 63, 131–152 (2012).
Marschner, H., Römheld, V. & Kissel, M. Different strategies in higher plants in mobilization and uptake of iron. J. Plant Nutr. 9, 695–713 (1986).
Kim, S. A. & Guerinot, M. L. Mining iron: iron uptake and transport in plants. FEBS Lett. 581, 2273–2280 (2007).
Ulrich, W. et al. Climate and soil attributes determine plant species turnover in global drylands. J. Biogeogr. 41, 2307–2319 (2014).
Shipley, B. Confirmatory path analysis in a generalized multilevel context. Ecology 90, 363–368 (2009).
Dregne, H. E. Soils of Arid Regions Vol. 6 (Elsevier, 1976).
Kleber, M. et al. Chapter one—mineral–organic associations: formation, properties, and relevance in soil environments. Adv. Agron. 130, 1–140 (2015).
Safriel, U. & Adeel, Z. in Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends (eds Hassan, R., Scholes, R. & Ash, N.) 625–658 (Island Press, 2005).
Brady, N. C. & Weil, R. R. The Nature and Properties of Soils (Pearson Education, 2016).
Loveland, P. & Webb, J. Is there a critical level of organic matter in the agricultural soils of temperate regions: a review. Soil Tillage Res. 70, 1–18 (2003).
Carter, M. R. & Stewart, B. A. Structure and Organic Matter Storage in Agricultural Soils (CRC Press, 1995).
Katyal, J. C. & Sharma, B. D. DTPA-extractable and total Zn, Cu, Mn, and Fe in Indian soils and their association with some soil properties. Geoderma 49, 165–179 (1991).
White, J. G. & Zasoski, R. J. Mapping soil micronutrients. Field Crops Res. 60, 11–26 (1999).
Habiby, H., Afyuni, M., Khoshgoftarmanesh, A. H. & Schulin, R. Effect of preceding crops and their residues on availability of zinc in a calcareous Zn-deficient soil. Biol. Fertil. Soils 50, 1061–1067 (2014).
Jansen, B., Nierop, K. G. J. & Verstraten, J. M. Mechanisms controlling the mobility of dissolved organic matter, aluminium and iron in podzol B horizons. Eur. J. Soil Sci. 56, 537–550 (2005).
Güngör, E. B. Ö. & Bekbölet, M. Zinc release by humic and fulvic acid as influenced by pH, complexation and DOC sorption. Geoderma 159, 131–138 (2010).
He, Z. L., Yang, X. E. & Stoffella, P. J. Trace elements in agroecosystems and impacts on the environment. J. Trace Elem. Med. Biol. 19, 125–140 (2005).
Sauvé, S., Hendershot, W. & Allen, H. E. Solid-solution partitioning of metals in contaminated soils: dependence on pH, total metal burden, and organic matter. Environ. Sci. Technol. 34, 1125–1131 (2000).
Bradl, H. B. Adsorption of heavy metal ions on soils and soils constituents. J. Colloid Interface Sci. 277, 1–18 (2004).
Sims, J. T. Soil pH effects on the distribution and plant availability of manganese, copper, and zinc. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 50, 367–373 (1986).
Kämpf, N. & Schwertmann, U. Goethite and hematite in a climosequence in southern Brazil and their application in classification of kaolinitic soils. Geoderma 29, 27–39 (1983).
Voegelin, A., Pfister, S., Scheinost, A. C., Marcus, M. A. & Kretzschmar, R. Changes in zinc speciation in field soil after contamination with zinc oxide. Environ. Sci. Technol. 39, 6616–6623 (2005).
Slessarev, E. W. et al. Water balance creates a threshold in soil pH at the global scale. Nature 540, 567–569 (2016).
Maestre, F. T., Salguero-Gómez, R. & Quero, J. L. It is getting hotter in here: determining and projecting the impacts of global environmental change on drylands. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. 367, 3062–3075 (2012).
Palmgren, M. G. et al. Zinc biofortification of cereals: problems and solutions. Trends Plant Sci. 13, 464–473 (2008).
White, P. J. & Broadley, M. R. Biofortifying crops with essential mineral elements. Trends Plant Sci. 10, 586–593 (2005).
Zhao, F. J. et al. Variation in mineral micronutrient concentrations in grain of wheat lines of diverse origin. J. Cereal Sci. 49, 290–295 (2009).
Gerland, P. et al. World population stabilization unlikely this century. Science 346, 234–237 (2014).
Smith, M. R. & Myers, S. S. Impact of anthropogenic CO2 emissions on global human nutrition. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 834–839 (2018).
Zomer, R. J., Trabucco, A., Bossio, D. A. & Verchot, L. V. Climate change mitigation: a spatial analysis of global land suitability for clean development mechanism afforestation and reforestation. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 126, 67–80 (2008).
Hijmans, R. J., Cameron, S. E., Parra, J. L., Jones, P. G. & Jarvis, A. Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. Int. J. Climatol. 25, 1965–1978 (2005).
Anderson, J. M. & Ingram, J. S. I. Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility (CABI, 1989).
Kettler, T. A., Doran, J. W. & Gilbert, T. L. Simplified method for soil particle-size determination to accompany soil-quality analyses. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 65, 849–852 (2001).
EPA Method 3050B: Acid Digestion of Sediments, Sludges, and Soils (US Environmental Protection Agency, 1996).
Moreno-Jiménez, E. et al. Heavy metals distribution in soils surrounding an abandoned mine in NW Madrid (Spain) and their transference to wild flora. J. Hazard. Mater. 162, 854–859 (2009).
Madrid, F., Lopez, R. & Cabrera, F. Metal accumulation in soil after application of municipal solid waste compost under intensive farming conditions. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 119, 249–256 (2007).
Moreno-Jiménez, E., Sepúlveda, R., Esteban, E. & Beesley, L. Efficiency of organic and mineral based amendments to reduce metal[loid]mobility and uptake (Lolium perenne) from a pyrite-waste contaminated soil. J. Geochem. Explor. 174, 46–52 (2017).
Lindsay, W. L. & Norvell, W. A. Development of a DTPA soil test for zinc, iron, manganese, and copper. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 42, 421–428 (1978).
Liang, J. & Karamanos, R. E. in Soil Sampling and Methods of Analysis (ed. Carter, M. R.) 87–90 (Lewis Publishers, 1993).
De Santiago-Martín, A. et al. Improving the relationship between soil characteristics and metal bioavailability by using reactive fractions of soil parameters in calcareous soils. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 34, 37–44 (2015).
Rosseel, Y. lavaan: an R package for structural equation modeling. J. Stat. Softw. 48, 1–36 (2012).
R Development Core Team R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2014).
We thank all members of the EPES-BIOCOM network for the collection of field data, and all members of the Maestre laboratory for help with data organization and management, as well as comments and discussions about this work. We also thank T. Sizmur, R. L. Chaney and J. Behlert for edits and comments on earlier versions of our manuscript. This work was funded by a 2018 Leonardo Grant for Researchers and Cultural Creators of the BBVA Foundation, and by the European Research Council (ERC grant agreements 242658 (BIOCOM) and 647038 (BIODESERT)). C.P. was supported by Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement number 654132 (VULCAN). H.S. is supported by a Juan de la Cierva-Formación grant from Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (FJCI-2015-26782).
The authors declare no competing interests
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Moreno-Jiménez, E., Plaza, C., Saiz, H. et al. Aridity and reduced soil micronutrient availability in global drylands. Nat Sustain 2, 371–377 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0262-x
Water resource conservation promotes synergy between economy and environment in China’s northern drylands
Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering (2022)
Environmental Geochemistry and Health (2021)
Phytotoxicity of short-term exposure to excess zinc or copper in Scots pine seedlings in relation to growth, water status, nutrient balance, and antioxidative activity
Environmental Science and Pollution Research (2021)
Modeling Earth Systems and Environment (2021)
Distinct response of gross primary productivity in five terrestrial biomes to precipitation variability
Communications Earth & Environment (2020)