, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 75-139

First online:

Regional nitrogen budgets and riverine N & P fluxes for the drainages to the North Atlantic Ocean: Natural and human influences

  • R. W. HowarthAffiliated withEcology & Systematics, Cornell University
  • , G. BillenAffiliated withGroupe de Microbiol. des Milieux Aquatiques, Universite Libre de Bruxelles
  • , D. SwaneyAffiliated withEcology & Systematics, Cornell University
  • , A. TownsendAffiliated withEcology & Systematics, Cornell University
  • , N. JaworskiAffiliated withU.S. EPA Lab
  • , K. LajthaAffiliated withDepartment of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University
  • , J. A. DowningAffiliated withAnimal Ecology, Iowa State University
  • , R. ElmgrenAffiliated withDepartment of Systems Ecology and Centre for Marine Research, Stockholm University
  • , N. CaracoAffiliated withInstitute of Ecosystem Studies
    • , T. JordanAffiliated withSmithsonian Environmental Research Center
    • , F. BerendseAffiliated withCABO DLO
    • , J. FreneyAffiliated withCSIRO, Division of Plant Industry
    • , V. KudeyarovAffiliated withInstitute of Soil Science and Photosynthesis
    • , P. MurdochAffiliated withWater Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey
    • , Zhu Zhao-LiangAffiliated withLab of Material Cycling in Pedosphere, Institute of Soil Science

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We present estimates of total nitrogen and total phosphorus fluxes in rivers to the North Atlantic Ocean from 14 regions in North America, South America, Europe, and Africa which collectively comprise the drainage basins to the North Atlantic. The Amazon basin dominates the overall phosphorus flux and has the highest phosphorus flux per area. The total nitrogen flux from the Amazon is also large, contributing 3.3 Tg yr−1 out of a total for the entire North Atlantic region of 13.1 Tg yr−1 . On a per area basis, however, the largest nitrogen fluxes are found in the highly disturbed watersheds around the North Sea, in northwestern Europe, and in the northeastern U.S., all of which have riverine nitrogen fluxes greater than 1,000 kg N km−2 yr−1.

Non-point sources of nitrogen dominate riverine fluxes to the coast in all regions. River fluxes of total nitrogen from the temperate regions of the North Atlantic basin are correlated with population density, as has been observed previously for fluxes of nitrate in the world's major rivers. However, more striking is a strong linear correlation between river fluxes of total nitrogen and the sum of anthropogenically-derived nitrogen inputs to the temperate regions (fertilizer application, human-induced increases in atmospheric deposition of oxidized forms of nitrogen, fixation by leguminous crops, and the import/export of nitrogen in agricultural products). On average, regional nitrogen fluxes in rivers are only 25% of these anthropogenically derived nitrogen inputs. Denitrification in wetlands and aquatic ecosystems is probably the dominant sink, with storage in forests perhaps also of importance. Storage of nitrogen in groundwater, although of importance in some localities, is a very small sink for nitrogen inputs in all regions. Agricultural sources of nitrogen dominate inputs in many regions, particularly the Mississippi basin and the North Sea drainages. Deposition of oxidized nitrogen, primarily of industrial origin, is the major control over river nitrogen export in some regions such as the northeastern U.S.

Using data from relatively pristine areas as an index of change, we estimate that riverine nitrogen fluxes in many of the temperate regions have increased from pre-industrial times by 2 to 20 fold, although some regions such as northern Canada are relatively unchanged. Fluxes from the most disturbed region, the North Sea drainages, have increased by 6 to 20 fold. Fluxes from the Amazon basin are also at least 2 to 5 fold greater than estimated fluxes from undisturbed temperate-zone regions, despite low population density and low inputs of anthropogenic nitrogen to the region. This suggests that natural riverine nitrogen fluxes in the tropics may be significantly greater than in the temperate zone. However, deforestation may be contributing to the tropical fluxes. In either case, projected increases in fertilizer use and atmospheric deposition in the coming decades are likely to cause dramatic increases in nitrogen loading to many tropical river systems.

Key words

anthropogenic atmospheric deposition eutrophication fertilizer nitrogen nitrogen budget nitrogen fixation N:P ratio phosphorus pristine rivers temperate tropical