Human Manipulation of the Global Nitrogen Cycle
- LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0023
- LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0023
Ecosystems and all living beings are bathed in atmospheric N2, a nearly inert gas, which must be “fixed” by bacteria associated with plant roots or free-living in soil. These bacteria possess the enzyme nitrogenase, which allows them to convert N2 to reactive and bioavailable forms of N, including ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3-). N is a limiting nutrient in most ecosystems, so excess inputs of reactive N can have negative consequences, including changes to forest structure and function, and eutrophication of aquatic systems. Since the 1900s, humans have tripled the amount of reactive N cycling globally through air, land, and water systems. Both fossil fuel combustion and the advent of the Haber-Bosch process have contributed to accelerated N cycling. These hallmarks of modern society arose as a result of industrialization in the developed world and the pressure to produce synthetic N fertilizers that could support a growing human population. While they were considered great economic boons, these developments have had a cascade of unintended negative consequences for the biosphere. Combustion of fossil fuels releases N oxides into the atmosphere that can be transported large distances from their sources and cause acid rain and fertilization of downgradient terrestrial and aquatic systems. Widespread application (and over-application) of synthetic N fertilizers has caused increases in production of greenhouse gases (e.g., nitrous oxide) locally in croplands, and pollution of downgradient aquatic ecosystems from N-rich runoff. This article addresses the topic of human manipulation of the N cycle in a variety of ecosystems, as well as a number of specific locations around the globe. It does not serve as a general introduction to the N cycle. Those readers looking to start with the basics of N cycling, and biogeochemistry more generally, should see W. H. Schlesinger’s article on Biogeochemistry in Ecology.
The works in this section provide important pieces of the big picture, with respect to humans’ dramatic manipulation of the global nitrogen (N) cycle. Vitousek, et al. 1997 describes the major human activities—fossil fuel combustion, fertilizer N use, land use change, and invasive species introductions—that have changed the way N cycles in air, land, and water systems, while Canfield, et al. 2010 gives an evolutionary and microbial perspective. Also included are primary examples of human impacts on the N cycle; Driscoll, et al. 2001 discusses the generation of acid rain from fossil fuel combustion and the consequences for receiving forest and aquatic ecosystems. The overviews Galloway, et al. 2004 and Galloway, et al. 2008 focus on global estimates of N fluxes and provide recommendations for the management of reactive N (e.g., ammonium and nitrate), acknowledging that it is a problem of “too much” in industrialized regions of the world and “too little” in others, such as parts of the African continent. This section also includes papers on the manipulation of N in rapidly developing countries, including an analysis of China (Cui, et al. 2013), and the potential links between human manipulation of the N cycle and public health (Townsend, et al. 2003). Finally, Fowler, et al. 2013 provides information on current understanding of the global N cycle. Together, these works are meant to give readers an introduction to the vast influence that humans are having over a biogeochemical cycle fundamental to sustaining life on Earth, and to provide context for exploring particular parts of this story in greater detail.
Canfield, D. E., A. N. Glazer, and P. G. Falkowski. 2010. The evolution and future of Earth’s nitrogen cycle. Science 330.6001: 192–196.
A discussion of human manipulation of the global N cycle from the perspective of microbial ecology and Earth’s evolution.
Cui, S., Y. Shi, P. M. Groffman, W. H. Schlesinger, and Y.-G. Zhu. 2013. Centennial-scale analysis of the creation and fate of reactive nitrogen in China (1910–2010). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.52: 20882–20887.
Manipulation of the N cycle and negative consequences of these activities is currently a major concern in rapidly developing China. This article provides an overview of the major issues for the future.
Driscoll, C. T., G. B. Lawrence, A. J. Bulger, et al. 2001. Acidic deposition in the Northeastern United States: Sources and inputs, ecosystem effects, and management strategies. BioScience 51.3: 180–198.
An overview of how anthropogenic emissions of N (and sulfur, S) form acid rain, which has negative consequences for receiving terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Acid rain and its ecosystem effects have been widely studied and publicized in the northeastern United States and Europe since the mid-20th century.
Fowler, D., J. A. Pyle, J. A. Raven, and M. A. Sutton. 2013. The global nitrogen cycle in the twenty-first century: Introduction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 368.1621.
An introduction to a suite of papers updating current understanding of the global N cycle, following a meeting at the Royal Society on 4–6 December 2011.
Galloway, J. N., F. J. Dentener, D. G. Capone, et al. 2004. Nitrogen cycles: Past, present, and future. Biogeochemistry 70:153–226.
This paper synthesizes several datasets to predict the global N budget in 2050, and highlights human activities that are most impacting the N cycle.
Galloway, J. N., A. R. Townsend, J. W. Erisman, et al. 2008. Transformation of the nitrogen cycle: Recent trends, questions, and potential solutions. Science 320.5878: 889–892.
Updates current understanding of reactive N creation and impacts, including the points: reducing reactive N creation is difficult, but not impossible, and attention to areas with large populations but insufficient N is important, so that they might develop ways to increase food production while minimizing negative impacts on ecosystems.
Townsend, A. R., R. W. Howarth, F. A. Bazzaz, et al. 2003. Human health effects of a changing global nitrogen cycle. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1:240–246.
This paper outlines the potential human health risk of an altered global N cycle. Discusses how air- and water-borne N are linked to respiratory conditions, heart disease, cancers, and potentially the spread of vector-borne diseases.
Vitousek, P. M., J. D. Aber, R. W. Howarth, et al. 1997. Human alteration of the global nitrogen cycle: Sources and consequences. Ecological Applications 7:737–750.
This is now considered a classic work documenting the primary evidence for human manipulation of the global N cycle.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Acid Deposition
- Agricultural Land Abandonment
- Agrochemical Pollutants
- Agroforestry Systems
- Applied Fluvial Ecohydraulic
- Arid Environments
- Arsenic Contamination in South and Southeast Asia
- Beavers as Agents of Landscape Change
- Berry, Wendell
- Burroughs, John
- Bush Encroachment
- Carbon Dynamics
- Carson, Rachel
- Case Studies in Groundwater Contaminant Fate and Transport
- Climate Change and Conflict in Northern Africa
- Common Pool Resources
- Contaminant Dispersal in the Environment
- Coral Reefs and Coral Bleaching
- Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia
- Desert Dust in the Atmosphere
- Determinism, Environmental
- Ecological Integrity
- Economic Valuation Methods for Non-market Goods or Service...
- Economics, Environmental
- Economics of International Environmental Agreements
- Economics of Water Management
- Effects of Land Use
- Endocrine Disruptors
- Endocrinology, Environmental
- Engineering, Environmental
- Environmental Assessment
- Environmental Flows
- Environmental Health
- Environmental Law
- Environmental Sociology
- Ethics, Animal
- Ethics, Environmental
- European Union and Environmental Policy, The
- Extreme Weather and Climate
- Feedback Dynamics
- Fisheries, Economics of
- Forensics, Environmental
- Forest Transition
- Geodiversity and Geoconservation
- Geology, Environmental
- Global Phosphorus Dynamics
- Hazardous Waste
- Henry David Thoreau
- Historical Changes in European Rivers
- Historical Land Uses and Their Changes in the European Alp...
- Historical Range of Variability
- History, Environmental
- Human Impact on Historical Fluvial Sediment Dynamics in Eu...
- Humid Tropical Environments
- Hydraulic Fracturing
- India and the Environment
- Industrial Contamination, Case Studies in
- Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) for Climate Change
- International Land Grabbing
- Karst Caves
- Key Figures: North American Environmental Scientist Activi...
- Lakes: A Guide to the Scientific Literature
- Land Use, Land Cover and Land Management Change
- Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning
- Large Wood in Rivers
- Legacy Effects
- Lidar in Environmental Science, Use of
- Management, Australia's Environment
- Marine Mining
- Marine Protected Areas
- Mediterranean Environments
- Mountain Environments
- Muir, John
- Multiple Stable States and Regime Shifts
- Natural Fluvial Ecohydraulics
- Nitrogen Cycle, Human Manipulation of the Global
- Non-Renewable Resource Depletion and Use
- Olmsted, Frederick Law
- Periglacial Environments
- Physics, Environmental
- Psychology, Environmental
- Remote Sensing
- Riparian Zone
- River Pollution
- Rivers, Effects of Dams on
- Rivers, Restoration of Physical Integrity of
- Sea Level Rise
- Secondary Forests in Tropical Environments
- Security, Energy
- Security, Environmental
- Security, Water
- Sediment Budgets and Sediment Delivery Ratios in River Sys...
- Sediment Regime and River Morphodynamics
- Semiarid Environments
- Soil Salinization
- Soils as an Environmental System
- Spatial Statistics
- Sustainable Finance
- Sustainable Forestry, Economics of
- Technological and Hybrid Disasters
- The Key Role of Energy in Economic Growth
- Thresholds and Tipping Points
- Treaties, Environmental
- Tropical Southeast Asia
- Use of GIS in Environmental Science
- Water Availability
- Water Quality in Freshwater Bodies
- Water Quality Metrics
- Water Resources and Climate Change
- Water, Virtual
- White, Gilbert Fowler
- Wildfire as a Catalyst
- Zone, Critical