Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 1–6

Emission of nitrous oxide from soils used for agriculture

  • J.R. Freney

DOI: 10.1023/A:1009702832489

Cite this article as:
Freney, J. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems (1997) 49: 1. doi:10.1023/A:1009702832489


Nitrous oxide is emitted into the atmosphere as a result of biomass burning, and biological processes in soils. Biomass burning is not only an instantaneous source of nitrous oxide, but it results in a longer term enhancement of the biogenic production of this gas. Measurements of nitrous oxide emissions from soils before and after a controlled burn showed that significantly more nitrous oxide was exhaled after the burn. The current belief is that 90% of the emissions come from soils. Nitrous oxide is formed in soils during the microbiological processes nitrification and denitrification. Because nitrous oxide is a gas it can escape from soil during these transformations. Nitrous oxide production is controlled by temperature, pH, water holding capacity of the soil, irrigation practices, fertilizer rate, tillage practice, soil type, oxygen concentration, availability of carbon, vegetation, land use practices and use of chemicals. Nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils are increased by the addition of fertilizer nitrogen and by the growth of legumes to fix atmospheric nitrogen. A recent analysis suggests that emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilized soils are not related to the type of fertilizer nitrogen applied and emissions can be calculated from the amount of nitrogen applied. Legumes also contribute to nitrous oxide emission in a number of ways, viz. atmospheric nitrogen fixed by legumes can be nitrified and denitrified in the same way as fertilizer nitrogen, thus providing a source of nitrous oxide, and symbiotically living Rhizobia in root nodules are able to denitrify and produce nitrous oxide. Conversion of tropical forests to crop production and pasture has a significant effect on the emission of nitrous oxide. Emissions of nitrous oxide increased by about a factor of two when a forest in central Brazil was clear cut, and pasture soils in the same area produced three times as much nitrous oxide as adjacent forest soils. Studies on temperate and tropical rice fields show that less than 0.1% of the applied nitrogen is emitted as nitrous oxide if the soils are flooded for a number of days before fertilizer application. However, if mineral nitrogen is present in the soil before flooding it will serve as a source of nitrous oxide during wetting and drying cycles before permanent flooding. Thus dry seeded rice can be a source of considerable nitrous oxide. There are also indirect contributions to nitrous oxide emission through volatilization of ammonia and emission of nitric oxides into the atmosphere, and their redistribution over the landscape through wet and dry deposition. In general nitrous oxide emissions can be decreased by management practices which optimize the crop's natural ability to compete with processes whereby plant available nitrogen is lost from the soil-plant system. If these options were implemented they would also result in increased productivity and reduced inputs.

biomass burningN-fertilizerN2O

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • J.R. Freney
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Plant IndustryCSIROCanberraAustralia