Increasing salt production and use is shifting the natural balances of salt ions across Earth systems, causing interrelated effects across biophysical systems collectively known as freshwater salinization syndrome. In this Review, we conceptualize the natural salt cycle and synthesize increasing global trends of salt production and riverine salt concentrations and fluxes. The natural salt cycle is primarily driven by relatively slow geologic and hydrologic processes that bring different salts to the surface of the Earth. Anthropogenic activities have accelerated the processes, timescales and magnitudes of salt fluxes and altered their directionality, creating an anthropogenic salt cycle. Global salt production has increased rapidly over the past century for different salts, with approximately 300 Mt of NaCl produced per year. A salt budget for the USA suggests that salt fluxes in rivers can be within similar orders of magnitude as anthropogenic salt fluxes, and there can be substantial accumulation of salt in watersheds. Excess salt propagates along the anthropogenic salt cycle, causing freshwater salinization syndrome to extend beyond freshwater supplies and affect food and energy production, air quality, human health and infrastructure. There is a need to identify environmental limits and thresholds for salt ions and reduce salinization before planetary boundaries are exceeded, causing serious or irreversible damage across Earth systems.
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This work was supported by National Science Foundation GCR 2021089 and 2021015, Maryland Sea Grant SA75281870W and the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments contract number 21-001.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Kaushal, S.S., Likens, G.E., Mayer, P.M. et al. The anthropogenic salt cycle. Nat Rev Earth Environ 4, 770–784 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-023-00485-y