From Agronomists of the
Potash & Phosphate Institute
655 Engineering Drive, Suite 110
Norcross, Georgia 30092-2837
Phone (770) 447-0335

Summer 2000, No. 1


Our atmosphere is changing. Industrialized society has produced rising levels of carbon dioxide, ozone, and nitrogen oxides. Sulfur dioxide emissions may have stabilized, but considerable amounts are still transferred in the air, particularly in the northeast states.

What do these substances do to your crops?
Do they help, or do they harm?

Carbon dioxide, worrisome for its role as a greenhouse gas, is the biggest source of nutrients for all plants.
More than 90 percent of plant dry matter is made up of the carbon and oxygen it supplies. Numerous studies indicate that the elevated levels expected in the future are likely to stimulate plant productivity.

Ground-level ozone, on the other hand, can hurt your crop.
Near urban areas, crops frequently show symptoms of ozone injury. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide may not do much more than counterbalance the increasing levels of ozone.

Across the eastern Corn Belt, sulfur dioxide in the air can supply substantial amounts of the plant nutrient sulfur
. Plant leaves can absorb it through their stomates as a gas or through their roots after rain washes it into the soil as sulfate. The soil does not hold sulfur well, though, and crops like alfalfa, which remove a lot of it, can still show deficiencies.

In some areas, sulfur dioxide may be concentrated enough to cause stress to plants.
Recent research in India showed that nutrient-deficient soybeans were particularly susceptible, while those grown with balanced levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium tolerated the stress better. Potassium protects against ozone as well by increasing leaf levels of antioxidants such as ascorbic acid.

Nitrogen can be delivered through the air just like sulfur.
Across most of the Corn Belt, 5 to 8 pounds per acre fall with the rain each year. Ammonia that volatilizes from livestock operations, manure storages, and fields can be absorbed as a gas by plant leaves. Leaves also rapidly take up oxides of nitrogen that are emitted from the soil. In fact, a recent study in Ontario found that turf fertilized with nitrogen took up nitrogen oxides faster than unfertilized turf.

In some areas near the ocean coasts, the rain delivers as much as 28 pounds of chloride per acre each year.
Away from those areas, however, chloride deposition is negligible. Rainfall delivers only very small amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus - not enough to be significant to the nutrition of most crops.

Deposition varies greatly from one place to another and from year to year.
The National Atmospheric Deposition Program, through its nationwide network of precipitation monitoring sites, provides useful maps showing the distribution of nutrients delivered by rain each year. Their website,, gives full public access to the data.

Your nutrient management plan is not complete if it doesn't consider what comes from the air.


For more information, contact Dr. Tom Bruulsema, Eastern Canada and Northeast U.S. Director, PPI, 18 Maplewood Drive, Guelph, Ontario N1G 1L8, CANADA.   Phone: (519) 821-5519; E-mail:
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