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%.
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