Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Addressing the "Nitrogen Cascade": Incessant Cycling of Reactive Nitrogen in Environment

19.05.2008
While human-caused global climate change has long been a concern for environmental scientists and is a well-known public policy issue, the problem of excessive reactive nitrogen in the environment is little-known beyond a growing circle of environmental scientists who study how the element cycles through the environment and negatively alters local and global ecosystems and potentially harms human health.

Two new papers by leading environmental scientists bring the problem to the forefront in the May 16 issue of the journal Science. The researchers discuss how food and energy production are causing reactive nitrogen to accumulate in soil, water, the atmosphere and coastal oceanic waters, contributing to the greenhouse effect, smog, haze, acid rain, coastal "dead zones" and stratospheric ozone depletion.

"The public does not yet know much about nitrogen, but in many ways it is as big an issue as carbon, and due to the interactions of nitrogen and carbon, makes the challenge of providing food and energy to the world's peoples without harming the global environment a tremendous challenge," said University of Virginia environmental sciences professor James Galloway, the lead author of one of the Science papers and a co-author on the other. "We are accumulating reactive nitrogen in the environment at alarming rates, and this may prove to be as serious as putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

Galloway, the founding chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative, and a co-winner of the 2008 Tyler Prize for environmental science, is a longtime contributor to the growing understanding of how nitrogen cycles endlessly through the environment. In numerous studies over the years he has come to the realization of the "nitrogen cascade," and has created with his colleagues a flow chart demonstrating the pervasive and persistent effects of reactive nitrogen on Earth's environment (www.initrogen.org).

In its inert form, nitrogen is harmless and abundant, making up 78 percent of the Earth's atmosphere. But in the past century, with the mass production of nitrogen-based fertilizers and the large-scale burning of fossil fuels, massive amounts of reactive nitrogen compounds, such as ammonia, have entered the environment.

"A unique and troublesome aspect of nitrogen is that a single atom released to the environment can cause a cascading sequence of events, resulting ultimately in harm to the natural balance of our ecosystems and to our very health," Galloway said.

A nitrogen atom that starts out as part of a smog-forming compound may be deposited in lakes and forests as nitric acid, which can kill fish and insects. Carried out to the coast, the same nitrogen atom may contribute to red tides and dead zones. Finally, the nitrogen will be put back into the atmosphere as part of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which destroys atmospheric ozone.

Galloway and his colleagues suggest possible approaches to minimizing nitrogen use, such as optimizing its uptake by plants and animals, recovering and reusing nitrogen from manure and sewage, and decreasing nitrogen emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

"Nitrogen is needed to grow food," Galloway says, "but because of the inefficiencies of nitrogen uptake by plants and animals, only about 10 to 15 percent of reactive nitrogen ever enters a human mouth as food. The rest is lost to the environment and injected into the atmosphere by combustion.

"We must soon begin to manage nitrogen use in an integrated manner by decreasing our rate of creation of reactive nitrogen while continuing to produce enough food and energy to sustain a growing world population.”

Galloway's next effort is to create a "nitrogen footprint" calculator that people can access on the Internet, very similar to current "carbon footprint" calculators.

He says people can reduce their nitrogen footprints by reducing energy consumption at home, traveling less, and changing diet to locally grown vegetables (preferably organic) and fish and consuming less meat.

Galloway is quick to point out that along with the problems of excess reactive nitrogen in many areas of the world, there also are large regions, such as Africa, with too little nitrogen to grow enough food for rapidly growing populations. In those regions, the challenge is find ways to increase the availability of nitrogen while minimizing the negative environmental effects of too much nitrogen.

James Galloway | newswise
Further information:
http://www.virginia.edu

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Safeguarding sustainability through forest certification mapping
27.06.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

nachricht Dune ecosystem modelling
26.06.2017 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Manipulating Electron Spins Without Loss of Information

Physicists have developed a new technique that uses electrical voltages to control the electron spin on a chip. The newly-developed method provides protection from spin decay, meaning that the contained information can be maintained and transmitted over comparatively large distances, as has been demonstrated by a team from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute. The results have been published in Physical Review X.

For several years, researchers have been trying to use the spin of an electron to store and transmit information. The spin of each electron is always coupled...

Im Focus: The proton precisely weighted

What is the mass of a proton? Scientists from Germany and Japan successfully did an important step towards the most exact knowledge of this fundamental constant. By means of precision measurements on a single proton, they could improve the precision by a factor of three and also correct the existing value.

To determine the mass of a single proton still more accurate – a group of physicists led by Klaus Blaum and Sven Sturm of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear...

Im Focus: On the way to a biological alternative

A bacterial enzyme enables reactions that open up alternatives to key industrial chemical processes

The research team of Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle at the University of Freiburg's Institute of Biochemistry has long been exploring the functioning of nitrogenase....

Im Focus: The 1 trillion tonne iceberg

Larsen C Ice Shelf rift finally breaks through

A one trillion tonne iceberg - one of the biggest ever recorded -- has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica, after a rift in the ice,...

Im Focus: Laser-cooled ions contribute to better understanding of friction

Physics supports biology: Researchers from PTB have developed a model system to investigate friction phenomena with atomic precision

Friction: what you want from car brakes, otherwise rather a nuisance. In any case, it is useful to know as precisely as possible how friction phenomena arise –...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

»We are bringing Additive Manufacturing to SMEs«

19.07.2017 | Event News

The technology with a feel for feelings

12.07.2017 | Event News

Leipzig HTP-Forum discusses "hydrothermal processes" as a key technology for a biobased economy

12.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Researchers create new technique for manipulating polarization of terahertz radiation

20.07.2017 | Information Technology

High-tech sensing illuminates concrete stress testing

20.07.2017 | Materials Sciences

First direct observation and measurement of ultra-fast moving vortices in superconductors

20.07.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>