Why some places on Earth actually lack nitrogen

Above, a four-panel leaf color chart indicates the nitrogen levels of rice plants. (Credit: IRRI Photos/Flickr)

Excess nitrogen is an issue in some places, but lack of the element is also an issue elsewhere, research shows.

Since the mid-20th century, research and discussion has focused on the negative effects of excess nitrogen on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. However, new evidence indicates that the world is now experiencing a dual trajectory in nitrogen availability, with many areas experiencing a hockey stick-shaped decline.

In a new review paper in the journal Science, researchers describe the causes for these declines and the consequences on how ecosystems function.

“There is both too much nitrogen and too little nitrogen on Earth at the same time,” says Rachel Mason, lead author of the paper and a former postdoctoral scholar at the National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.

“We know that when there is too much nitrogen in an ecosystem it can act as a toxin. But in all those ecosystems where nitrogen is declining, that can spell trouble for the health, productivity and function of all the organisms and the ecosystem as a whole,” says study coauthor Peter Reich, director of Institute for Global Change Biology at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

Over the last century, humans have more than doubled the total global supply of reactive nitrogen through industrial and agricultural activities. This nitrogen becomes concentrated in streams, inland lakes, and coastal bodies of water, sometimes resulting in eutrophication, low-oxygen dead-zones, and harmful algal blooms. These negative impacts of excess nitrogen have led scientists to study nitrogen as a pollutant.

However, rising carbon dioxide levels and other global changes have increased demand for nitrogen by plants and microbes. In many areas of the world that are not subject to excessive inputs of nitrogen from people, long-term records demonstrate that nitrogen availability is declining, with important consequences for plant and animal growth.

Nitrogen is an essential element in proteins and as such, its availability is critical to the growth of plants and the animals that eat them. Gardens, forests, and fisheries are almost all more productive when they are fertilized with moderate amounts of nitrogen.

If plant nitrogen becomes less available, plants grow more slowly and their leaves are less nutritious to insects, potentially reducing growth and reproduction, not only of insects but also the birds and bats that feed on them.

“When nitrogen is less available, every living thing holds on to the element for longer, slowing the flow of nitrogen from one organism to another through the food chain. This is why we can say that the nitrogen cycle is slowing down,” says Andrew Elmore, senior author of the paper and a professor of landscape ecology at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and at the National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.

Researchers reviewed long-term, global, and regional studies and found evidence of declining nitrogen availability. For example, grasslands in central North America have been experiencing declining nitrogen availability for a hundred years and cattle grazing these areas have had less protein in their diets over time. Meanwhile, many forests in North America and Europe have been experiencing nutritional declines for several decades or longer.

These declines are likely caused by multiple environmental changes, including elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached its highest level in millions of years, and terrestrial plants are exposed to about 50% more of this essential resource than just 150 years ago.

Elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide fertilizes plants, allowing faster growth but diluting plant nitrogen in the process, leading to a cascade of effects that lower the availability of nitrogen. On top of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, warming and disturbances such as wildfires can also reduce availability over time.

Declining nitrogen availability also is likely constraining the ability of plants to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as shown by a number of studies by Reich that underpin this conclusion. Currently, global plant biomass stores nearly as much carbon as is contained in the atmosphere, and biomass carbon storage increases each year as carbon dioxide levels increase.

However, declining nitrogen availability jeopardizes the annual increase in plant carbon storage by imposing limitations to plant growth. Therefore, climate change models that currently attempt to estimate carbon stored in biomass, including trends over time, need to account for nitrogen availability.

“The strong indications of declining nitrogen availability in many places and contexts is another important reason to rapidly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” says Elmore. “Additional management responses that could increase nitrogen availability over large regions are likely to be controversial but are clearly an important area to be studied.”

In the meantime, the review paper recommends that data be assembled into an annual state-of-the-N-cycle report, or a global map of changing nitrogen availability, that would represent a comprehensive resource for scientists, managers, and policymakers.

The National Science Foundation supports the National Socio-environmental Synthesis with an award to the University of Maryland.

Source: University of Michigan via Amy Pelinsky for University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science