Jessica Sieff | April 23, 2017
When it comes to greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide tends to steal the spotlight — but new research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reveals how scientists have developed a new, predictive tool to estimate nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from rivers and streams around the world. N2O, a greenhouse gas with 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, persists for over a century in the Earth’s atmosphere and is known to cause significant damage to the Earth’s ozone layer. Rivers and streams can be sources of N2O because they are hotspots for denitrification, a process whereby microbes convert dissolved nitrogen into nitrogenous gas.
While previous research has attempted to quantify where and when N2O is emitted, rivers and streams have posed a significant challenge because accurately measuring N2O from flowing waters is difficult, particularly at the scale of an entire river system. The current study presents a widely applicable predictive model from which to estimate N2O emissions from waterways based on simple metrics including stream size, land use and land cover of adjacent landscape, biome type and varying climatic conditions.
“Rapid land use change, such as the conversion of historic wetlands to agricultural lands, has increased the delivery of bioavailable nitrogen from the landscape to the detriment of receiving streams and rivers,” said Jennifer Tank, Galla Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, co-author of the study and director of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative. “Some of that nitrogen will be converted by microbes into N2O, and because it is a powerful greenhouse gas, where and when that happens in flowing waters is of great interest, both now and into the future.”