Magazine article World Watch

The Nitrogen Cycle Is out of Balance

Magazine article World Watch

The Nitrogen Cycle Is out of Balance

Article excerpt

As the prospect of climate change continues to bring attention to the global carbon cycle, scientists are beginning to voice concern about another key circuit: the global nitrogen cycle. Human activities are doubling the amount of nitrogen each year that is "fixed" (combined with hydrogen, oxygen, or carbon to form compounds that living things can use) on land. This large-scale intervention in the nitrogen cycle is already seriously altering ecosystems around the world, according to a panel of ecologists chaired by Stanford University's Peter Vitousek.

Nitrogen, the atmosphere's most abundant element, is an essential component of all life on earth. However, only a small amount of inert atmospheric nitrogen is converted into forms that plants can use, so it serves as an important limiting factor in many ecosystems. Soil microbes and lightning fix just 90 to 140 million tons of nitrogen per year. But humans are now adding at least 140 million tons annually by manufacturing industrial fertilizer, burning fossil fuels, and cultivating legumes, which support nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Industrial fertilizer - distinct from manure and other organic fertilizers that merely transfer already-fixed nitrogen from one place to another - contributes the most newly-fixed nitrogen, 80 million tons. And the industrial fertilizer boom is relatively recent: the amount used on crops during the 1980s alone exceeded all industrial fertilizer applied previously in human history.

This human-induced nitrogen infusion is creating various types of local, regional, and global pollution that tend to be studied separately. However, the Vitousek panel, whose findings appear in the August issue of Ecological Applications, has reviewed the whole range of problems. For instance, surplus nitrogen is contributing to increased global concentrations of nitrous oxide ([N.sub. …

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