Anthropogenic nitrogen emissions during the Holocene and their possible effects on remote ecosystems

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Abstract

[1] Reactive nitrogen (Nr = NH3-N + NOx-N) is an important atmospheric pollutant, contributing to acidification, eutrophication and biodiversity changes in ecosystems. This study estimates Nr emissions from anthropogenic sources on a global scale since the advent of agriculture ∼8000 B.C., using a simple model based on the development of human population and per capita factors of Nr emissions originating from livestock production, biomass burning (biofuel use and forest and savannah burning), and other anthropogenic sources (humans and pets, N-fertilizer use, and fossil fuel combustion). The estimated global cumulative anthropogenic emissions of Nr to the atmosphere are ∼17.4 Pg N (8.6 Pg NH3-N and 8.8 Pg NOx-N) for 8000 B.C. through the year 2000 A.D., with 28% of this amount emitted during 1850–2000 A.D., 42% during 1–1850 A.D., and 30% during the previous 8000 years. Forest and savannah burning represent the major cumulative flux of both NH3-N and NOx-N (3.5 and 5.8 Pg, respectively). Livestock production and biofuel burning are responsible for emissions of 3.3 and 1.2 Pg NH3-N, respectively, while the application of synthetic fertilizers contributes 0.26 Pg NH3-N. The different duration of biofuel and fossil fuel use (10,000 versus ∼150 years) causes the higher cumulative NOx-N emissions from biofuel than from fossil fuel use (1.9 versus 1.1 Pg). The cumulative Nr emissions on a land area basis are 1.3 and 3.0 Mg N ha−1 globally and in Europe, respectively. Since an estimated 60% of Nr emitted in Europe is also deposited there, the average cumulative anthropogenic Nr deposition would be ∼1.8 Mg N ha−1, representing ∼30% of the current N pools in forest and alpine meadow soils of European glaciated areas (i.e., soils of similar age as the emissions). Despite large uncertainties in the model (13.7–30.5 Pg N over the last 10,000 years), the relative temporal distributions of total cumulative Nr emissions vary within relatively narrow ranges for different assumptions, with 70%–84% of the emissions occurring prior to 1850 A.D. We conclude that the majority of the total cumulative Nr flux from anthropogenic sources over the last 10,000 years occurred in the preindustrial period and could have increased soil N pools of some remote ecosystems much earlier than is currently assumed.

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