Globally important nitrous oxide emissions from croplands induced by freeze–thaw cycles

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
Year published:
Published online


Seasonal freezing induces large thaw emissions of nitrous oxide, a trace gas that contributes to stratospheric ozone destruction and atmospheric warming. Cropland soils are by far the largest anthropogenic source of nitrous oxide. However, the global contribution of seasonal freezing to nitrous oxide emissions from croplands is poorly quantified, mostly due to the lack of year-round measurements and difficulty in capturing short-lived pulses of nitrous oxide with traditional measurement methods. Here we present measurements collected with half-hourly resolution at two contrasting cropland sites in Ontario and Manitoba, Canada, over 14 and 9 years, respectively. We find that the magnitude of freeze–thaw-induced nitrous oxide emissions is related to the number of days with soil temperatures below 0°C, and we validate these findings with emissions data from 11 additional sites from cold climates around the globe. Based on an estimate of cropland area experiencing seasonal freezing, reanalysis model estimates of soil temperature, and the relationship between cumulative soil freezing days and emissions that we derived from the cropland sites, we estimate that seasonally frozen cropland contributes 1.07 ± 0.59 Tg of nitrogen as nitrous oxide annually. We conclude that neglecting freeze–thaw emissions would lead to an underestimation of global agricultural nitrous oxide emissions by 17 to 28%.

At a glance


  1. Daily N2O fluxes and soil surface conditions at two seasonally frozen sites.
    Figure 1: Daily N2O fluxes and soil surface conditions at two seasonally frozen sites.

    a,b, Mean maximum air temperature (red line, with T < 0°C shaded), snow depth (grey), soil temperature at 5cm depth (blue), soil liquid water content at 0–10cm depth (black), and box plot of N2O fluxes (error bars indicate 10th and 90th percentiles, and symbols indicate outliers) from 1 November to 30 April at Elora, Ontario (CA1) (a) and Glenlea, Manitoba (CA2) (b) in Canada. Data shown are for 56 and 36 plot years for CA1 and CA2, respectively, including annual and perennial crops with a range of management.

  2. Relationship between cumulative N2O emissions and CFD at 5[thinsp]cm soil depth for November to April.
    Figure 2: Relationship between cumulative N2O emissions and CFD at 5cm soil depth for November to April.

    a, Model fit based on data from two study sites in Canada (CA1 and CA2, n = 44). The solid line shows the exponential-to-plateau model N2O = 1.98(1 − e(−0.00724CFD)), pseudo-R2 = 0.74. b, Model validation using published data from 11 additional sites in: Canada (CA3, CA4 and CA5); USA (US1, US2 and US3); Japan (JP1 and JP2); China (CH1); and Germany (GR1 and GR2). The solid line shows the model from a.

  3. Global N2O emissions due to soil freeze-thaw from seasonally frozen croplands.
    Figure 3: Global N2O emissions due to soil freeze–thaw from seasonally frozen croplands.

    a, Mean N2 O emissions (Nov.–Apr.) derived from the exponential-to-plateau model and CFD obtained from three reanalysis products for 1986–2005. b, Standard deviation of mean N2O emissions. Black and red dots in a and b indicate the locations of the study and validation sites, respectively. c, Box plot of global N2O emissions (Nov.–Apr.) for each reanalysis product, showing the distribution of emissions over the 1986–2005 period (first and third quartile, median, and mean, indicated with a star), with bars indicating the range between minimum and maximum values.


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Author information


  1. School of Environmental Science, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada

    • Claudia Wagner-Riddle,
    • Katelyn A. Congreves &
    • Shannon E. Brown
  2. Department of Soil Quality, Wageningen University, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Diego Abalos
  3. Department of Geography, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada

    • Aaron A. Berg &
    • Jaison Thomas Ambadan
  4. Department of Soil Science, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada

    • Xiaopeng Gao &
    • Mario Tenuta


C.W.-R., K.A.C., D.A., M.T. and A.A.B. conceptualized the study. S.E.B. and X.G. conducted the flux sampling data processing. J.T.A. performed global data processing. C.W.-R., K.A.C. and D.A. performed data analyses. All authors contributed to the writing.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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