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Uneven rise in N inputs to the Lake Michigan Basin over the 20th century corresponds to agricultural and societal transitions

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By constructing nitrogen (N) budgets from 1880 to 2002 for watersheds that have undergone urbanization, intensive agricultural specialization or experienced minimal change, we document an uneven timeline of increase in anthropogenic N inputs. N loading to the watersheds of the Lake Michigan Basin grew six-fold from 1880 to 2002, peaking in 1987. Human activities influenced N inputs as early as 1880, and the magnitude and timing of increase differed markedly across regions in accord with population growth, land use, and type of agriculture. The greatest increase occurred from 1950 to 1980, corresponding with rapidly accelerating use of artificial fertilizers, but increases in atmospheric deposition and shifting patterns in crop and livestock production also affected trends. Net anthropogenic N inputs have changed little since about 1980, showing a modest decline due to a leveling out of fertilizer use and greater export of animal feed and products. Using a model that predicts riverine N export from watershed N loadings and river discharge, we found that river TN fluxes from all tributaries increased approximately threefold from 1900 to 2000 but have stabilized or declined over the past two decades, consistent with national surveys that show near-constant or declining riverine TN concentrations. For the LMB, the past two decades has been a period of relative stasis in N inputs to its terrestrial systems and N export from watersheds. This retrospective analysis also points to the challenge of forecasting future trends in N budget terms, which can both increase and decline in response to policy and societal transitions.

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Atmospheric organic nitrogen


Clean air status and trends network


Lake Michigan Basin


Net anthropogenic nitrogen input


National atmospheric deposition program/national trends network

NOx :

Nitrogen oxide


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This work was supported by grants and a fellowship from the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment and Rackham Discretionary Fund. We are grateful to Nathan Bosch, William Currie, Don Scavia, and to anonymous reviewers for their insights and comments.

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Correspondence to Haejin Han.

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Han, H., Allan, J.D. Uneven rise in N inputs to the Lake Michigan Basin over the 20th century corresponds to agricultural and societal transitions. Biogeochemistry 109, 175–187 (2012).

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