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Keywords:

  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide;
  • C∶N ratio;
  • global carbon cycle;
  • global change;
  • nitrogen deposition

The global cycles of carbon and nitrogen are being perturbed by human activities that increase the transfer from large pools of non-reactive forms of the elements to reactive forms that are essential to the functioning of the terrestrial biosphere. The cycles are closely linked at all scales, and global change analyses must consider C and N cycles together. The increasing amount of N originating from fossil fuel combustion and deposited to terrestrial ecosystems as nitrogen oxides could increase the capacity of ecosystems to sequester C, thereby removing some of the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slowing the development of greenhouse warming. Several global and ecosystem models have calculated the amount of C sequestration that can be attributed to N deposition, based on assumptions about the allocation of N among ecosystem components with different C∶N ratios. They support the premise that, since industrialization began, N deposition has been responsible for an increasing terrestrial C sink, but there is great uncertainty whether ecosystems will continue to retain exogenous N. Whether terrestrial ecosystems continue to sequester additional C will depend in part on their response to increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, widely thought to be constrained by limited N availability. Ecosystem models generally support the conclusion that responses to increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide will be greater, and the range of possible responses will be wider, in ecosystems where increased N inputs originate as atmospheric deposition. The interactions between N deposition and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations could be altered considerably, however, by additional factors, including N saturation of ecosystems, changes in community composition, and climate change. Nitrogen deposition is also linked to global change issues through the volatile losses of nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas, and the role of nitrogen oxides in the production of tropospheric ozone, which could interact with plant responses to elevated carbon dioxide. Any consideration of the role of N deposition in global change issues must also balance the projected responses against the serious detrimental impact of excess N on the environment.