Phosphorus in the global environment

  • Holm Tiessen
Part of the Plant Ecophysiology book series (KLEC, volume 7)

Phosphorus is not one of the “global” elements, it does not enter the atmosphere like nitrogen, it does not spread like sulfur by acid rain and its solubility in water is so low that there is only a slow, steady movement of P down-stream as landscapes erode and weather, or P-containing pollutants are discharged. Yet, there are some global trends in the distribution of P. To understand these and their drivers it is useful to review some of the basic properties of P in the environment.

The earth’s crust contains about 1,200 mg P kg−1, making it the 11th most abundant element. Common concentrations for total P in soils are between 200 and 800 mg kg−1, with older soils containing lower amounts of P and younger soils containing higher amounts of P. In primary rocks and young soils, P is largely bound to calcium or magnesium, giving P a typical water solubility near 0.5 mg P L−1. The weathering of minerals changes the solubility of P, as Ca is preferentially leached out, the relative abundance of Fe and Al increases and the solubility of P becomes controlled by Fe- or Al-phosphates, which have much lower solubilities than Ca-phosphates. As a result, the sequestration of P in low-solubility Fe and Al-phosphate compounds and the effect of leaching and erosion, many older and tropical soils are P deficient, i.e. the availability of P to plants and other organisms restricts ecosystem processes such as N fixation or C sequestration.

The availability of P to plants is controlled by physical and chemical reactions, including sorption/desorption and precipitation/dissolution and biological processes such as immobilization (uptake by plants and microorganisms) and by mineralization (decomposition of residues). The sorption of P, followed by slower transformations, such as solid state diffusion into the matrix of the sorbent, reduce the solubility of P, sometimes to such a degree that P is said to become “fixed”. Strictly speaking, P fixation is a misnomer, since all chemical reactions are to some degree reversible, but the amount and rate of release of “fixed” P may be so low that they are ecologically insignificant.


Global Environment Tropical Soil Young Soil Inositol Hexaphosphate Soil Organic Phosphorus 
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© Springer Science + Business Media B.V 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Holm Tiessen
    • 1
  1. 1.Inter-American Institute for Global Change ResearchBrazil

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