Nitrogen: Another Environmental Threat

According to the latest issue of Science, University of Virginia scientists are warning that nitrogen build up in the environment is a real, but little known threat. Essentially, reactive nitrogen is accumulating in the environment at what University of Virginia Professor James Galloway calls “alarming rates” and may be as serious a threat as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas build up.

What is causing this build up of reactive nitrogen (not to be confused with nitrogen alone which is harmless)? Nitrogen based fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels. In fact, the production of nitrogen compounds has increased 120% since 1970. Add another set of environmental disasters to the roster of big oil as reactive nitrogen accumulation causes smog, haze, climate change, acid rain, coastal dead zones and ozone depletion.

One of the co-authors of the paper, Jan Willem Erisman is the driving force behind a new UN Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen (TFRN) which will be meeting May 21st - 23rd in the Netherlands. The UK and the Netherlands are co-chairing the committee. The agenda includes developing recommended revisions to the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol on Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone abatement.

Even the International Nitrogen Initiative, which “is dedicated to optimizing the use of nitrogen in food production, while minimizing the negative effects of nitrogen on human health and the environment as a result of food and energy production” acknowledges the major threat of reactive nitrogen accumulation.

…reactive nitrogen can cascade through a variety of environmental systems, damaging them significantly and exacting a toll on human health. Reactive nitrogen is implicated in the high concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere, the eutrophication of coastal ecosystems, the acidification of forests, soils, and freshwater streams and lakes, and losses of biodiversity. In the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, nitrogen contributes to global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion. -- International Nitrogen Initiative
Thankfully, the solutions are readily available if the will exists to implement them. Specifically, the article suggests limiting nitrous oxide emissions from fossil fuels, which can already be done through existing technology, and limiting the creation and use of artificial fertilizers, which can already be done through an existing and ancient technology -- something called organic farming.

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Leslie B. 232°


Written in December 2008

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