Anthropogenic nitrogen being added to oceans far less than previously assumed
A new study finds that human activities are likely contributing far less nitrogen to the open ocean than many atmospheric models suggest. That's generally good news, but it also nullifies a potential side benefit to additional nitrogen, says Meredith Hastings, associate professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University and one of the study's co-authors.
"People may not be polluting the ocean as much as we thought, which is a good thing," said Hastings, who is also a fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. "However, additional nitrogen could potentially stimulate the ocean's ability to draw down carbon dioxide out the atmosphere, which might counteract carbon emissions to some extent. But if we're not adding as much nitrogen, we're not getting that potential side benefit in the carbon cycle."
The research is published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Nitrogen is the most abundant gas in the atmosphere and a key ecological nutrient, supporting the growth of plants and providing a food source for microorganisms. But excess nitrogen in aquatic environments can cause overgrowth of algae and other aquatic plants, which can throw ecosystems out of balance. Large algal blooms, for example, can deplete waterways of oxygen, leading to mass fish kills and other problems.
But along with the problems, there's a potential upside to excess nitrogen. An influx of nitrogen into the oceans could stimulate the growth of phytoplankton and other photosynthetic organisms. Photosynthesis consumes carbon dioxide, so an increase in biological activity could increase the oceans' ability to draw down atmospheric CO2.
Image credit: Hastings lab / Brown University
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