An assessment of human influences on fluxes of nitrogen from the terrestrial landscape to the estuaries and continental shelves of the North Atlantic Ocean

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Our analysis for the International SCOPE Nitrogen Project shows that the fluxes of nitrogen in rivers to the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean vary markedly among regions, with the lowest fluxes found in northern Canada (76 kg N km−2 yr−1) and the highest fluxes found in the watersheds of the North Sea (1450 kg N km−2 yr−1). Non-point sources of nitrogen dominate the flux in all regions. The flux of nitrogen from the various regions surrounding the North Atlantic is correlated (r2 = 0.73) with human-controlled inputs of nitrogen to the regions (defined as net inputs of nitrogen in food, nitrogen fertilizer, nitrogen fixation by agricultural crops, and atmospheric deposition of oxidized nitrogen), and human activity has clearly increased these nitrogen flows in rivers. On average, only 20% of the human-controlled inputs of nitrogen to a region are exported to the ocean in riverine flows; the majority (80%) of these regional nitrogen inputs is stored in the landscape or denitrified. Of all the nitrogen inputs to regions, atmospheric deposition of NOyh is the best predictor of riverine export of nitrogen from non-point sources (r2 = 0.81). Atmospheric deposition of this oxidized nitrogen, most of which derives from fossil-fuel combustion, may be more mobile in the landscape than are regional inputs of nitrogen from fertilizer, nitrogen fixation in agriculture, and nitrogen in foods and feedstocks. Agricultural sources of nitrogen, although larger total inputs to most temperate regions surrounding the North Atlantic Ocean, appear to be more tightly held in the landscape. Deposition of ammonium from the atmosphere appears to be a very good surrogate measure of the leakiness of nitrogen from agricultural sources to surface waters. This suggests a management approach for controlling ‘surplus’ nitrogen used in agricultural systems. The sum of NOy and ammonium deposition proves to be an amazingly powerful predictor of nitrogen fluxes from non-point sources to the coastal North Atlantic Ocean for temperate-zone regions (r2 = 0.92; p = 0.001). By comparing fluxes with some estimates of what occurs in watersheds with minimal human impact, it appears that human activity has increased riverine nitrogen inputs to the ocean by some 11-fold in the North Sea region, by 6-fold for all of Europe, and by 3-fold for all of North America. These increased flows of nitrogen have clearly led to severe eutrophication in many estuaries, and have probably contributed to some eutrophication on the continental shelf in the North Sea and in the Gulf of Mexico. In other regions, however, the input of nitrogen to continental shelves is dominated by cross-shelf advection from deep-Atlantic waters, and the increased inputs from rivers are relatively minor.

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