17O excess traces atmospheric nitrate in paleo-groundwater of the Saharan desert

Martin Dietzel, Albrecht Leis, Rashid Abdalla, Joel Savarino, Samuel Morin, Michael Böttcher, Stephan Jürgen Köhler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Saharan paleo-groundwater from the Hasouna area of Libya contains up to 1.8 mM of nitrate, which exceeds the World Health Organization limit for drinking water, but the origin is still disputed. Herein we show that a positive 17O excess in NO3− (Δ17ONO3 = Δ17ONO3 − 0.52 δ18ONO3) is preserved in the paleo-groundwater. The 17O excess provides an excellent tracer of atmospheric NO3−, which is caused by the interaction of ozone with NOx via photochemical reactions, coupled with a non-mass-dependent isotope fractionation. Our Δ17ONO3 data from 0.4 to 5.0 ‰ (n = 28) indicate that up to 20 mol % of total dissolved NO3- originated from the Earth's atmosphere (x[NO3−]atm), where the remaining NO3− refers to microbially induced nitrification in soils. High Δ17ONO3 values correspond to soils that are barren in dry periods, while low Δ17ONO3 values correspond to more fertile soils. Coupled high Δ17ONO3 and high x[NO3−]atm values are caused by a sudden wash-out of accumulated disposition of atmospheric NO3− on plants, soil surfaces and in vadose zones within humid–wet cycles. The individual isotope and chemical composition of the Hasouna groundwater can be followed by a binary mixing approach using the lowest and highest mineralised groundwater as end members without considering evaporation. Using the δ34SSO4 and δ18OSO4 isotope signature of dissolved SO42−, no indication is found for a superimposition by denitrification, e.g. involving pyrite minerals within the aquifers. It is suggested that dissolved SO42− originates from the dissolution of CaSO4 minerals during groundwater evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3149-3161
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Fields of Expertise

  • Sonstiges

Treatment code (Nähere Zuordnung)

  • Basic - Fundamental (Grundlagenforschung)


Dive into the research topics of '17O excess traces atmospheric nitrate in paleo-groundwater of the Saharan desert'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this