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Atmospheric Deposition and Inorganic Nitrogen Flux

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Flux of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN—primarily nitrate) from terrestrial ecosystems has been considered an important contributor to acidification of linked aquatic systems. The basis of this concern is the nitrogen (N) saturation hypothesis, positing that additions of N to terrestrial ecosystems in excess of biological requirements will result in DIN leaching. There is a consensus (implicit hypothesis) in the literature that atmospheric deposition of DIN in excess of a threshold of approximately 10 kg ha−1 year−1 leads to significant flux. Diverse data from USA indicate that DIN flux is highly variable both in space and time; the spatial uncertainty as measured by the pooled coefficient of variation is about 0.95, and the temporal (inter-year) uncertainty is about 0.75. The relationship between atmospheric deposition of DIN and annual flux is near-linear within the range of current deposition for US sites (≤8 kg ha−1 year−1 wet deposition). If wet and dry depositions are approximately equal, over 85 % of total DIN deposition is retained. This is nearly equal to the retention reported by the US Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment Program, which considered all nonpoint sources of N as inputs and both DIN and organic N as fluxes. Although input–output data have high uncertainty, the 85 % retention of atmospheric DIN by terrestrial watersheds casts doubt on its importance as a contributor to aquatic acidification. There is no obvious threshold of deposition leading to DIN leaching. The nitrogen saturation hypothesis may not fully explain N behavior in terrestrial ecosystems.

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This work was supported by the Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto, CA, through a contract with Tetra Tech, Inc., Lafayette, CA, and by the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water, and Climate.

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Correspondence to D. F. Grigal.

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Grigal, D.F. Atmospheric Deposition and Inorganic Nitrogen Flux. Water Air Soil Pollut 223, 3565–3575 (2012).

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  • Nitrogen saturation
  • Aquatic acidification
  • Nitrogen retention
  • DIN variation