A secular increase in continental crust nitrogen during the Precambrian




Johnson, Benjamin W.
Goldblatt, Colin

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Geochemical Perspectives Letters


Recent work indicates the presence of substantial geologic nitrogen reservoirs in the mantle and continental crust. Importantly, this geologic nitrogen has exchanged between the atmosphere and the solid Earth over time. Changes in atmospheric nitrogen (i.e. atmospheric mass) have direct effects on climate and biological productivity. It is difficult to constrain, however, the evolution of the major nitrogen reservoirs through time. Here we show a secular increase in continental crust nitrogen through Earth history recorded in glacial tills (2.9 Ga to modern), which act as a proxy for average upper continental crust composition. Archean and earliest Palaeoproterozoic tills contain 66 ± 100 ppm nitrogen, whereas Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic tills contain 290 ± 165 ppm nitrogen, whilst the isotopic composition has remained constant at ∼4 ‰. Nitrogen has accumulated in the continental crust through time, likely sequestered from the atmosphere via biological fixation. Our findings support dynamic, non-steady state behaviour of nitrogen through time, and are consistent with net transfer of atmospheric N to geologic reservoirs over time.



nitrogen, atmosphere, Earth, mantle, till, continental crust, Precambrian, Phanerozoic


Johnson, B.W. & Goldblatt, C. (2017). A secular increase in continental crust nitrogen during the Precambrian. Geochemical Perspectives Letters, 4, 24–28. DOI:10.7185/geochemlet.1731