Anthropogenic nitrogen plays a double role in climate change

Increased nitrous oxide emissions from fertilised soils offset climatic benefits from carbon sequestration

August 03, 2011

Human nitrogen additions to the soil may reinforce the greenhouse effect.  Nitrogen additions tend to boost plant growth, so that terrestrial ecosystems absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But recent studies have shown that they also stimulate nitrous oxide release from the fertisilied soils – a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. According to a new paper by researchers around the team of Sönke Zaehl from the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, nitrogen's detrimental effects on the climate roughly correspond to its climactic benefits. In fact, the scientists' findings suggest that the negative impacts of nitrogen may even slighty prevail.

It is primarily fertilization that has doubled the amount of nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems such as agricultural areas, but also in forests and wetlands, since the middle of the 19th century - with two opposing effects on the climate: ecosystems store more carbon dioxide, which weakens the greenhouse effect. However, more nitrous oxide escapes from nitrogen-rich soil, which is much more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide and destroys the positive effect of nitrogen input.

Human activities have more than doubled nitrogen inputs to the terrestrial biosphere since the 1860s through increased atmospheric nitrogen deposition and the application of fertilizers in agriculture. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant and microbial growth, and one of the key limiting nutrients in many natural ecosystems. But  anthropogenic perturbations of the nitrogen cycle through the additions of fertilisers are known to affect the terrestrial sources and sinks of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O), better known as "laughing gas".  An international research team lead by  Soenke Zaehle,  researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, has now determined the magnitude of such effects on the two greenhouse gases.

“When added to nitrogen-limited ecosystems, it [nitrogen] can stimulate plant growth and/or suppress soil respiration, thereby leading to increased ecosystem carbon storage” explains Sönke Zaehle. However, there are also potentially negative consequences for adding nitrogen to ecosystems, as increasing nitrogen availability may enhance nitrogen losses from ecosystems, and eventually even have damaging effects on plant health. Particularly relevant for climate are elevated emissions of nitrous oxide, a long-lived greenhouse gas that is emitted from fertilised fields, as well as nitrogen-rich forest and grassland ecosystems.

Carbon dioxide and nitrogen cycles are strongly coupled

Drawing on reconstructions of past and present anthropogenic nitrogen deposition and fertiliser applications, Sönke Zaehle and colleagues used a global computer model of the coupled terrestrial carbon and nitrogen cycles to better understand the consequences of this anthropogenic nitrogen perturbation for the climate system. Their results confirm that the anthropogenic nitrogen perturbation has profoundly affected terrestrial carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide fluxes. Human nitrogen additions are the principle cause for the increase in terrestrial nitrous oxide emission since 1960, and contribute to about one fifth of the current global net carbon uptake (1996-2005).

Sönke Zaehle and colleagues then determined the effect of anthropogenic nitrogen on the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases CO2 and N2O, and assessed the resulting consequences for present-day climate. The key finding is that the climatic effects of the anthropogenic nitrogen perturbation from both gases are very substantial but of opposite signs. The cooling effect due to enhanced carbon uptake of the terrestrial biosphere is more than compensated for by the warming effects from enhanced terrestrial N2O emissions.

However, “the fact that in our study the N2O effect appears stronger than the CO2 effect should not be over-interpreted” cautions Zaehle. Rather, the study highlights the relevance of anthropogenic nitrogen in the climate system and the need to consider the effects of carbon and nitrogen cycling jointly. “I hope that this study fosters further research to better understand the effects of human N on ecosystem dynamics through joint observational and modelling studies”, Zaehle adds.



Background information:

The Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, founded in 1997, is dedicated to the study of long-term interactions among the biosphere, atmosphere, geosphere and the oceans. The research aims of the Institute include:

  • quantifying the role of these interactions in the control of the Earth’s climate in a time of increasing anthropogenic impact;
  • developing a quantitative and predictive understanding of the regulation of processes in ecosystems and their attendant biogeochemical cycles in the face of climate change;
  • and investigating feedback mechanisms at the Earth’s surface that involve vegetation, atmospheric composition and climate.

For more information see

Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View