Nav: Home

Nitrogen pollution's path to streams weaves through more forests (and faster) than suspected

March 15, 2019

NEWTOWN SQUARE, Penn. (March 15, 2018) - Nitrogen in rain and snow falls to the ground where, in theory, it is used by forest plants and microbes. New research by a scientific collaboration led by the USDA Forest Service shows that more nitrogen from rain and snow is making it to more streams than previously believed and flowing downstream in forests of the United States and Canada. The study, "Unprocessed atmospheric nitrate in waters of the Northern Forest Region in the USA and Canada," was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology and is available at: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/57730

Scientists found that some nitrate, which is a form of nitrogen that plants and microbes can use, occasionally moves too fast for biological uptake, resulting in "unprocessed" nitrate bypassing the otherwise effective filter of forest biology. The study links pollutant emissions from various and sometimes distant sources including industry, energy production, the transportation sector and agriculture to forest health and stream water quality.

"Nitrogen is critical to the biological productivity of the planet, but it becomes an ecological and aquatic pollutant when too much is present," said Stephen Sebestyen, a research hydrologist with the USDA Forest Service's Northern Research Station based in Grand Rapids, Minn., and the study's lead author.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

"From public land managers to woodlot owners, there is a great deal of interest in forest health and water quality. Our research identifies widespread pollutant effects, which undermines efforts to manage nitrogen pollution."

Sebestyen and 29 co-authors completed one of the largest and longest examinations to trace unprocessed nitrate movement in forests. Scientists from several federal agencies and 12 academic institutions in the United States, Canada, and Japan collected water samples in 13 states and the province of Ontario, ultimately compiling more than 1,800 individual nitrate isotope analyses over the course of 21 years.

"We generally assumed that nitrate pollution would not travel a great distance through a forest because the landscape would serve as an effective filter," Sebestyen said. "This study demonstrates that while we have not been wrong about that, we needed more information to be better informed." Forests overall use most nitrate, unless rainfall and snowmelt runoff during higher flow events lead to brief, but important windows when unprocessed nitrate flows to streams; sometimes at levels that are unexpectedly high.

Too much nitrogen contributes to forest decline and growth of nuisance vegetation in lakes and ponds. Tree species have varying levels of tolerance for nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can change forest composition and provide a foothold for non-native plants. "I'm concerned with how air pollution affects forests and watersheds," said Trent Wickman, an Air Resource Specialist with the USDA Forest Service's Eastern Region and a co-author of the study. "There are a number of federal and state programs that aim to reduce nitrogen air pollution from vehicles and industrial sources. Understanding the fate of nitrogen that originates in the air, but ends up on land, is important to gauge the effectiveness of those pollution reduction programs."

Sebestyen and the study's co-authors suggest that because unprocessed nitrogen is not being filtered by natural vegetation to the extent previously believed, monitoring coupled with this baseline information is needed to give land managers a more nuanced view of forest health issues.
-end-


USDA Forest Service - Northern Research Station

Related Nitrogen Articles:

Reducing nitrogen with boron and beer
The industrial conversion of nitrogen to ammonium provides fertiliser for agriculture.
New nitrogen products are in the air
A nifty move with nitrogen has brought the world one step closer to creating a range of useful products -- from dyes to pharmaceuticals -- out of thin air.
'Black nitrogen'
In the periodic table of elements there is one golden rule for carbon, oxygen, and other light elements.
A deep dive into better understanding nitrogen impacts
This special issue presents a selection of 13 papers that advance our understanding of cascading consequences of reactive nitrogen species along their emission, transport, deposition, and the impacts in the atmosphere.
How does an increase in nitrogen application affect grasslands?
The 'PaNDiv' experiment, established by researchers of the University of Bern on a 3000 m2 field site, is the largest biodiversity-ecosystem functioning experiment in Switzerland and aims to better understand how increases in nitrogen affect grasslands.
Reducing reliance on nitrogen fertilizers with biological nitrogen fixation
Crop yields have increased substantially over the past decades, occurring alongside the increasing use of nitrogen fertilizer.
Flushing nitrogen from seawater-based toilets
With about half the world's population living close to the coast, using seawater to flush toilets could be possible with a salt-tolerant bacterium.
We must wake up to devastating impact of nitrogen, say scientists
More than 150 top international scientists are calling on the world to take urgent action on nitrogen pollution, to tackle the widespread harm it is causing to humans, wildlife and the planet.
How nitrogen-fixing bacteria sense iron
New research reveals how nitrogen-fixing bacteria sense iron - an essential but deadly micronutrient.
Corals take control of nitrogen recycling
Corals use sugar from their symbiotic algal partners to control them by recycling nitrogen from their own ammonium waste.
More Nitrogen News and Nitrogen Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.