FRISCO — Scientists studying the North Pacific Ocean said this week they were surprised to find a significant human impact to the upper ocean nitrogen cycle, primarily resulting from industrial and agricultural emissions.
The rate of deposition of reactive nitrogen (i.e., nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel burning and ammonia compounds from fertilizer use) from the atmosphere to the open ocean has more than doubled globally over the last 100 years.
Their analysis could discern human-derived nitrogen from natural nitrogen fixation, showing that the oceanic nitrate concentration increased significantly over the last 30 years in surface waters of the North Pacific due largely to the enhanced deposition of nitrogen from the atmosphere.
“This is a sobering result, one that I would not have predicted,” said Karl. “The North Pacific is so vast it is hard to imagine that humans could impact the natural nitrogen cycle,” said University of Hawai’i oceanographer David Karl.
The researchers used ocean data in conjunction with the state-of-the-art Earth System Model to reconstruct the history of the oceanic nitrate concentration and make predictions about the future state of the North Pacific Ocean. Their assessment revealed a consistent picture of increasing nitrate concentrations, the magnitude and pattern of which can only be explained by the observed increase in atmospheric nitrogen deposition.
“The burgeoning human population needs energy and food – unfortunately, nitrogen pollution is an unintended consequence and not even the open ocean is immune from our daily industrial activities,” said Karl.
Enhanced nitrogen deposition could increase photosysnthesis in the sunlit layers and export of carbon-rich organic material out of the surface ocean into the deep.
Given the likelihood that the magnitude of atmospheric nitrogen deposition will continue to increase in the future, the North Pacific Ocean could rapidly switch to having surplus nitrate. Thus, past and future increases in atmospheric nitrogen deposition have the potential to alter the base of the marine food web; and, in the long term, the structure of the ecosystem.
In particular, the shift in nutrient availability could favor marine organisms that thrive under the high nitrate and low phosphorus conditions. If similar trends are confirmed in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, it would constitute another example of a global-scale alteration of the Earth system. Further, the findings of this study of the North Pacific highlight the need for greater controls on the emission of nitrogen compounds during combustion and agricultural processes.