Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Solutions for a nitrogen-soaked world

Date:
January 17, 2012
Source:
Ecological Society of America
Summary:
Nitrogen is both an essential nutrient and a pollutant, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion and a fertilizer that feeds billions, a benefit and a hazard, depending on form, location, and quantity. Agriculture, industry and transportation have spread nitrogen liberally around the planet, say scientists with complex and interrelated consequences for human and ecological health.

Nitrogen is both an essential nutrient and a pollutant, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion and a fertilizer that feeds billions, a benefit and a hazard, depending on form, location, and quantity. Agriculture, industry and transportation have spread nitrogen liberally around the planet, say sixteen scientists in the latest edition of ESA's Issues in Ecology series, "Excess Nitrogen in the U.S. Environment: Trends, Risks, and Solutions," with complex and interrelated consequences for ecological communities and our dependence upon the resources they provide, as well as human health.

Pulling from a broad pool of expertise in air quality, agronomy, ecology, epidemiology and groundwater geochemistry, the sixteen authors track nitrogen through its different chemical forms and biological incarnations as it progresses across economic, environmental and regulatory bounds. They argue for a systematic, rather than piecemeal, approach to managing the resource and its consequences. "We're really trying to identify solutions," said lead author Eric Davidson, a soil ecologist and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center. "This is a paper about how much we do know, not about what we don't know. We know about nitrogen cycles, and sources, and we know problems can be addressed in economically viable ways."

Once a critical limiting element of agricultural production, excess nitrogen now overflows from fields and stockyards, typically in the forms of ammonia and nitrate, contaminating drinking water and air, and altering the chemistry and constituency of ecological communities. "Nitrogen is readily mobile, and very efficiently distributed through wind and water," said author James Galloway, a biogeochemist at the University of Virginia. Airborne nitrogen from agricultural fields, manure piles, automobile tailpipes, and smokestacks travels with the wind to settle over distant forests and coastal areas.

Though extra fertilizer sounds like a good thing, it does not benefit all species equally, leading, in more extreme cases, to sudden changes like algal blooms, which smother competing species and can create health hazards. Nitrogen also acidifies soil, leaching away other important nutrients. Interventions to control nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants and gasoline-fueled engines have made encouraging progress. Mitigating agricultural sources of excess nitrogen is more complicated.

"We know how to reduce nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion to a very small amount. We know the science, we have the engineering, and we have the regulatory tools," said Galloway, setting emissions aside as a political, rather than a scientific, hurdle. "On the food side, that's where it gets interesting," he said. "How can you still produce the food the society demands, needs, yet use less nitrogen to produce it?"

The report tabulates strategies to help farmers maximize efficient use of fertilizer, rather than just maximize crop yield, including buffer strips and wetlands, manure management, and ideal patterns of fertilizer application. It also considers the cost of implementing them, and programs for buffering farmers against losses in bad years.

"There are a variety of impacts due to the human use of nitrogen," said Galloway. "The biggest is a positive one, in that it allows us to grow food for Americans and people in other countries, and we don't want to lose sight of that." Balancing inexpensive abundant food against the damage done by nitrogen escaping into the environment is a conversation the authors would like to hear more prominently in policy arenas.

"Yes, we have to feed people, but we also need clean drinking water, clean air, and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico," said Davidson. "The science helps to show those tradeoffs, and where we most stand to gain from improved nutrient management in agriculture."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Ecological Society of America. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Ecological Society of America. "Solutions for a nitrogen-soaked world." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 January 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120117145109.htm>.
Ecological Society of America. (2012, January 17). Solutions for a nitrogen-soaked world. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120117145109.htm
Ecological Society of America. "Solutions for a nitrogen-soaked world." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120117145109.htm (accessed July 30, 2014).

Share This




More Earth & Climate News

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Climate Change Could Cost Billions, According To White House

Climate Change Could Cost Billions, According To White House

Newsy (July 29, 2014) A report from the White House warns not curbing greenhouse gas emissions could cost the U.S. billions. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Climate Change Could Cost Billions According To White House

Climate Change Could Cost Billions According To White House

Newsy (July 29, 2014) A report from the White House warns not curbing greenhouse gas emissions could cost the U.S. billions. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Jane Goodall Warns Great Apes Face Extinction

Jane Goodall Warns Great Apes Face Extinction

AFP (July 29, 2014) The world's great apes face extinction within decades, renowned chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall warned Tuesday in a call to arms to ensure man's closest relatives are not wiped out. Duration: 00:58 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Rat Infestation at Paris' Tuileries Garden

Rat Infestation at Paris' Tuileries Garden

AFP (July 29, 2014) An infestation of rats is causing concern among tourists at Paris' most famous park -- the Tuileries garden next to the Louvre Museum. Duration: 00:54 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins