Soils are the main sources of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). The N2O emission at the soil surface is the result of production and consumption processes. So far, research has concentrated on net N2O production. However, in the literature, there are numerous reports of net negative fluxes of N2O, (i.e. fluxes from the atmosphere to the soil). Such fluxes are frequent and substantial and cannot simply be dismissed as experimental noise.
Net N2O consumption has been measured under various conditions from the tropics to temperate areas, in natural and agricultural systems. Low mineral N and large moisture contents have sometimes been found to favour N2O consumption. This fits in with denitrification as the responsible process, reducing N2O to N2. However, it has also been reported that nitrifiers consume N2O in nitrifier denitrification. A contribution of various processes could explain the wide range of conditions found to allow N2O consumption, ranging from low to high temperatures, wet to dry soils, and fertilized to unfertilized plots. Generally, conditions interfering with N2O diffusion in the soil seem to enhance N2O consumption. However, the factors regulating N2O consumption are not yet well understood and merit further study.
Frequent literature reports of net N2O consumption suggest that a soil sink could help account for the current imbalance in estimated global budgets of N2O. Therefore, a systematic investigation into N2O consumption is necessary. This should concentrate on the organisms, reactions, and environmental factors involved.
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