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Article

Nutrient pollution can have a negative impact on the aquatic environment, with loss of biodiversity, toxic algal blooms, and a deficiency in dissolved oxygen in surface waters. Agricultural production is one of the main contributors to these problems; this article provides an overview of and background for the main biogeochemical processes causing agricultural nutrient pollution of surface waters. It discusses the main features of the agricultural impact on nutrient loads to surface waters, focusing on nitrogen and phosphorus, and describes some of the main characteristics of agricultural management, including processes and pathways from soil to surface waters. An overview of mitigation measures to reduce pollution, retention in the landscape, and challenges regarding quantification of nutrient losses are also dealt with. Examples are presented from different spatial scales, from field and catchment to river basin scale.

Article

Wim De Vries, Enzai Du, Klaus Butterbach Bahl, Lena Schulte Uebbing, and Frank Dentener

Human activities have rapidly accelerated global nitrogen (N) cycling since the late 19th century. This acceleration has manifold impacts on ecosystem N and carbon (C) cycles, and thus on emissions of the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4), which contribute to climate change. First, elevated N use in agriculture leads to increased direct N2O emissions. Second, it leads to emissions of ammonia (NH3), nitric oxide (NO), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and leaching of nitrate (NO3−), which cause indirect N2O emissions from soils and waterbodies. Third, N use in agriculture may also cause changes in CO2 exchange (emission or uptake) in agricultural soils due to N fertilization (direct effect) and in non-agricultural soils due to atmospheric NHx (NH3+NH4) deposition (indirect effect). Fourth, NOx (NO+NO2) emissions from combustion processes and from fertilized soils lead to elevated NOy (NOx+ other oxidized N) deposition, further affecting CO2 exchange. As most (semi-) natural terrestrial ecosystems and aquatic ecosystems are N limited, human-induced atmospheric N deposition usually increases net primary production (NPP) and thus stimulates C sequestration. NOx emissions, however, also induce tropospheric ozone (O3) formation, and elevated O3 concentrations can lead to a reduction of NPP and plant C sequestration. The impacts of human N fixation on soil CH4 exchange are insignificant compared to the impacts on N2O and CO2 exchange (emissions or uptake). Ignoring shorter lived components and related feedbacks, the net impact of human N fixation on climate thus mainly depends on the magnitude of the cooling effect of CO2 uptake as compared to the magnitude of the warming effect of (direct and indirect) N2O emissions. The estimated impact of human N fixation on N2O emission is 8.0 (7.0–9.0) Tg N2O-N yr−1, which is equal 1.02 (0.89–1.15) Pg CO2-C equivalents (eq) yr−1. The estimated CO2 uptake due to N inputs to terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems equals −0.75 (−0.56 to −0.97) Pg CO2-C eq yr−1. At present, the impact of human N fixation on increased CO2 sequestration thus largely (on average near 75%) compensates the stimulating effect on N2O emissions. In the long term, however, effects on ecosystem CO2 sequestration are likely to diminish due to growth limitations by other nutrients such as phosphorus. Furthermore, N-induced O3 exposure reduces CO2 uptake, causing a net C loss at 0.14 (0.07–0.21) Pg CO2-C eq yr−1. Consequently, human N fixation causes an overall increase in net greenhouse gas emissions from global ecosystems, which is estimated at 0.41 (−0.01–0.80) Pg CO2-C eq yr−1. Even when considering all uncertainties, it is likely that human N inputs lead to a net increase in global greenhouse gas emissions. These estimates are based on most recent science and modeling approaches with respect to: (i) N inputs to various ecosystems, including NH3 and NOx emission estimates and related atmospheric N (NH3 and NOx) deposition and O3 exposure; (ii) N2O emissions in response to N inputs; and (iii) carbon exchange in responses to N inputs (C–N response) and O3 exposure (C–O3 response), focusing on the global scale. Apart from presenting the current knowledge, this article also gives an overview of changes in the estimates of those fluxes and C–N response factors over time, including debates on C–N responses in literature, the uncertainties in the various estimates, and the potential for improving them.

Article

Air pollution has been a major threat to human health, ecosystems, and agricultural crops ever since the onset of widespread use of fossil fuel combustion and emissions of harmful substances into ambient air. As a basis for the development, implementation, and compliance assessment of air pollution control policies, monitoring networks for priority air pollutants were established, primarily for regulatory purposes. With increasing understanding of emission sources and the release and environmental fate of chemicals and toxic substances into ambient air, as well as atmospheric transport and chemical conversion processes, increasingly complex air pollution models have entered the scene. Today, highly accurate equipment is available to measure trace gases and aerosols in the atmosphere. In addition, sophisticated atmospheric chemistry transport models—which are routinely compared to and validated and assessed against measurements—are used to model dispersion and chemical processes affecting the composition of the atmosphere, and the resulting ambient concentrations of harmful pollutants. The models also provide methods to quantify the deposition of pollutants, such as acidifying and eutrophying substances, in vegetation, soils, and freshwater ecosystems. This article provides a general overview of the underlying concepts and key features of monitoring and modeling systems for outdoor air pollution.

Article

Corn ranks first among crops in quantity produced globally, owing to its high yield and to its value as a food for humans and domestic animals. While its water-use efficiency is high compared to that of other crops, the production of high corn yields requires a great deal of water; the availability of water largely determines where the crop is grown. As a high-yielding grass species, corn also requires a substantial supply of nutrients (especially nitrogen) from external sources, including manufactured fertilizers and organic materials such as animal or green manures. This, along with the need to manage soils, weeds, insects, and diseases, makes corn production environmentally consequential. Corn captures large quantities of sunlight energy through photosynthesis, but its production requires large external inputs of energy, coming mostly (in mechanized production) from fossil fuels. So even though the crop’s high yields moderates the environmental cost per unit of grain produced, minimizing the external environmental consequences of large-scale corn production is an important goal in the quest for greater sustainability of production of this important crop.

Article

Gregory L. Willoughby

Agriculture has been said to be the key to civilization development. The longevity of the production of the soils which sustained the population development influenced, in fact caused, the rise and often the collapse of those ancient cultures. Furthermore, the fertilization of those soils, if by new sediment or by other means, enabled some civilizations to survive longer than others. It was only with the development of more consistent fertilization and newer, higher-analysis materials that crop production entered an era where it could reliably feed beyond the family unit but feed the city, and then the whole country. This modern industrial fertilization required fewer people to be devoted to food production so that their efforts could be directed to more secondary and tertiary careers. The growth of the use of fertilizer by over 200% in 40 years has led to an increased scrutiny of its environmental aspect in the early 21st century, and this has led to a revaluation of application procedures and to an increase in research and development of new forms of fertilizer and into ways to change modern fertilizers’ environmental footprints to better steward food production and remedy systems that are off target environmentally. These technologies are sometimes very basic, such as including combinations of elements which help stabilize each other (e.g. sulfur and nitrogen or phosphorus and sulfur). Other technologies include polymer-coating (e.g. slow-release coatings) and impregnatable coatings (e.g. nitrapyrin, NBPT). In other cases, new materials have been developed (e.g. methylated urea) and in yet others progress has come from a mixing of other compounds with the fertilizer (e.g. gypsum to phosphorus fertilizer, or humic acids to nitrogen formulations). Lastly, there has been a rise in the importance of micronutrients as production has increased (e.g. zinc, manganese, and boron) especially as yield levels have increased.