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Dead ZonesThe Loss of Oxygen from Rivers, Lakes, Seas, and the Ocean$
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David L. Kirchman

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780197520376

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197520376.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 25 September 2021

Liebig’s Law and Haber’s Tragedy

Liebig’s Law and Haber’s Tragedy

(p.89) 6 Liebig’s Law and Haber’s Tragedy
Dead Zones

David L. Kirchman

Oxford University Press

The fertilizers commonly used by gardeners have many ingredients, but the biggest two are nitrogen and phosphorus, either of which can limit plant and algal growth. The idea that only one nutrient limits growth is encapsulated by Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, named after Justus von Liebig, a 19th-century German chemist. Liebig is also called the “father of fertilizer” because of his work on formulating and promulgating commercial fertilizers. However, he wasn’t the first to discover the Law, and he was wrong about the most important ingredient of fertilizers. This chapter outlines the arguments among limnologists, oceanographers, and geochemists about whether nitrogen or phosphorus sets the rate of algal growth and thus production of the organic material that drives oxygen depletion. The chapter discusses that the limiting nutrient varies with the type of aquatic habitat. In dead zones like the Gulf of Mexico, parts of the Baltic Sea, and Chesapeake Bay, bioassay experiments have shown that nitrogen is usually limiting. The nitrogen necessary for fertilizer and ammunitions comes from the Haber-Bosch process. The chapter reviews the life of one of the two German inventors, Fritz Haber, and how it was full of contradictions if not tragedy.

Keywords:   Liebig’s Law, Haber-Bosch process, nitrogen fixation, Fritz Haber, Justus von Liebig, nutrient limitation

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