Nitrogen Runoff Into Rivers Causes 3x More Emissions Than IPCC Estimates

missouri river photo

photo: Darren Blackburn/Creative Commons

You're probably aware that nitrogen runoff into rivers contributes to the growing problem of ocean dead zones, but according to new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences human-caused nitrogen loading in the world's rivers is a much greater source of greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of nitrous oxide, than previously estimated by the IPCC.The report's lead author says,

Human activities, including fossil fuel combustion and intensive agriculture, have increased the availability of nitrogen in the environment. Much of this nitrogen is transported into river and stream networks where it may be converted to nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, via the activity of microbes. (Science Codex)

According to this new research, though less than one percent of the nitrogen broken down by microbes is converted into nitrous oxide, the world's river and stream networks are the source of at least 10% of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions.

Though shorter-lived in the atmosphere, nitrous oxide has 300x the warming potential of CO2, and accounts for about 6% of human-induced climate change.

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