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Enhanced nitrogen deposition over China


China is experiencing intense air pollution caused in large part by anthropogenic emissions of reactive nitrogen1,2. These emissions result in the deposition of atmospheric nitrogen (N) in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, with implications for human and ecosystem health, greenhouse gas balances and biological diversity1,3,4,5. However, information on the magnitude and environmental impact of N deposition in China is limited. Here we use nationwide data sets on bulk N deposition, plant foliar N and crop N uptake (from long-term unfertilized soils) to evaluate N deposition dynamics and their effect on ecosystems across China between 1980 and 2010. We find that the average annual bulk deposition of N increased by approximately 8 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare (P < 0.001) between the 1980s (13.2 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare) and the 2000s (21.1 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare). Nitrogen deposition rates in the industrialized and agriculturally intensified regions of China are as high as the peak levels of deposition in northwestern Europe in the 1980s6, before the introduction of mitigation measures7,8. Nitrogen from ammonium (NH4+) is the dominant form of N in bulk deposition, but the rate of increase is largest for deposition of N from nitrate (NO3), in agreement with decreased ratios of NH3 to NOx emissions since 1980. We also find that the impact of N deposition on Chinese ecosystems includes significantly increased plant foliar N concentrations in natural and semi-natural (that is, non-agricultural) ecosystems and increased crop N uptake from long-term-unfertilized croplands. China and other economies are facing a continuing challenge to reduce emissions of reactive nitrogen, N deposition and their negative effects on human health and the environment.

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Figure 1: Trends in N deposition and its components in China between 1980 and 2010.
Figure 2: Trends in NH 3 and NO x emissions and their main contributors between 1980 and 2010.
Figure 3: Comparisons of foliar N concentrations and crop N uptake between the 1980s and 2000s.


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We thank X. Chen, A. Bleeker, X. Ju, J. Shen and R. Jiang for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript or assistance during the manuscript revision, and we thank H. Liu, J. Lü, F. Chen, L. Wu and S. Qiu for providing data from long-term experiments. The authors also acknowledge all those who provided local assistance or technical help to the CAU-organized Deposition Network. This work was financially supported by the Chinese National Basic Research Program (2009CB118606), an Innovative Group Grant from the NSFC (31121062, 41071151, 40973054) and the Sino-German Research Training Group (GK 1070).

Author information




X.L. and F.Z. designed the research. X.L., Y.Z., W.H., A.T., J.S. and Z.C. conducted the research (collected the data sets and analysed the data). X.L., Y.Z. and P.V. wrote the manuscript. J.W.E., K.G., P.C., A.F. and F.Z. commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fusuo Zhang.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Liu, X., Zhang, Y., Han, W. et al. Enhanced nitrogen deposition over China. Nature 494, 459–462 (2013).

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