ATMOSPHERIC nitrous oxide is important because of its role in stratospheric ozone destruction1 and because it is a greenhouse gas.2,3. Measurements indicate that N2O is increasing in the atmosphere at a rate of ~0.2% yr"1 (ref. 4). Fossil-fuel combustion and biomass burning5,6 have been considered to be significant global sources of N2O, but the recent discovery of an artefact producing increased levels of N2O in combustion gas samples collected and stored in grab bottles before chemical analysis7,8has resulted in the downgrading of fossil-fuel combustion and the questioning of biomass burning as important sources of N2O9,10. As almost all reported analyses of N2O produced from biomass burning have involved essentially the same collection and analysis protocols as used in the fossil-fuel studies, this source of N2O must also be re-examined. Here we report and compare measurements of N2O made over a large prescribed fire using a near real-time in situ measurement technique with measurements of N2O from simultaneously collected grab-bottle samples. The results from 27 small laboratory biomass test fires also help clarify the validity of earlier assessments. We conclude that biomass burning contributes -7% of atmospheric N2O, as opposed to earlier estimates of several times this value6.
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