Global food production depends on phosphorus. Phosphorus is broadly applied as fertilizer, but excess phosphorus contributes to eutrophication of surface water bodies and coastal ecosystems1. Here we present an analysis of phosphorus fluxes in three large river basins, including published data on fertilizer, harvested crops, sewage, food waste and river fluxes2,3,4. Our analyses reveal that the magnitude of phosphorus accumulation has varied greatly over the past 30–70 years in mixed agricultural–urban landscapes of the Thames Basin, UK, the Yangtze Basin, China, and the rural Maumee Basin, USA. Fluxes of phosphorus in fertilizer, harvested crops, food waste and sewage dominate over the river fluxes. Since the late 1990s, net exports from the Thames and Maumee Basins have exceeded inputs, suggesting net mobilization of the phosphorus pool accumulated in earlier decades. In contrast, the Yangtze Basin has consistently accumulated phosphorus since 1980. Infrastructure modifications such as sewage treatment and dams may explain more recent declines in total phosphorus fluxes from the Thames and Yangtze Rivers3,4. We conclude that human-dominated river basins may undergo a prolonged but finite accumulation phase when phosphorus inputs exceed agricultural demand, and this accumulated phosphorus may continue to mobilize long after inputs decline.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $14.08 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Smith, V. H. & Schindler, D. W. Eutrophication science: where do we go from here? Trends Ecol. Evol. 24, 201–207 (2009).
Baker, D. B. & Richards, R. P. Phosphorus budgets and riverine phosphorus export in northwestern Ohio watersheds. J. Environ. Qual. 31, 96–108 (2002).
Dai, Z. J., Du, J. Z., Zhang, X. L., Su, N. & Li, J. F. Variation of riverine material loads and environmental consequences on the Changjiang (Yangtze) Estuary in recent decades (1955–2008). Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 223–227 (2011).
Haygarth, P. M. et al. Sustainable phosphorus management and the need for a long-term perspective: the legacy hypothesis. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 8417–8419 (2014).
Falkowski, P. et al. The global carbon cycle: a test of our knowledge of Earth as a system. Science 290, 291–296 (2000).
Villalba, G., Liu, Y., Schroder, H. & Ayres, R. U. Global phosphorus flows in the industrial economy from a production perspective. J. Ind. Ecol. 12, 557–569 (2008).
Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).
Withers, P. J. A., Sylvester-Bradley, R., Jones, D. L., Healey, J. R. & Talboys, P. J. Feed the crop not the soil: rethinking phosphorus management in the food chain. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 6523–6530 (2014).
Obersteiner, M., Penuelas, J., Ciais, P., van der Velde, M. & Janssens, I. A. The phosphorus trilemma. Nature Geosci. 6, 897–898 (2013).
Elser, J. & Bennett, E. A broken biogeochemical cycle. Nature 478, 29–31 (2011).
Childers, D. L., Corman, J., Edwards, M. & Elser, J. J. Sustainability challenges of phosphorus and food: solutions from closing the human phosphorus cycle. Bioscience 61, 117–124 (2011).
Bennett, E. M., Carpenter, S. R. & Caraco, N. F. Human impact on erodable phosphorus and eutrophication: a global perspective. BioScience 51, 227–234 (2001).
Sharpley, A. et al. Phosphorus legacy: overcoming the effects of past management practices to mitigate future water quality impairment. J. Environ. Qual. 42, 1308–1326 (2013).
Jarvie, H. P. et al. Water quality remediation faces unprecedented challenges from ‘legacy phosphorus’. Environ Sci. Technol. 47, 8997–8998 (2013).
Carpenter, S. R. & Bennett, E. M. Reconsideration of the planetary boundary for phosphorus. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 014009 (2011).
Kirchner, J. W., Feng, X. H. & Neal, C. Fractal stream chemistry and its implications for contaminant transport in catchments. Nature 403, 524–527 (2000).
Meals, D. W., Dressing, S. A. & Davenport, T. E. Lag time in water quality response to best management practices: a review. J. Environ. Qual. 39, 85–96 (2010).
MacDonald, G. K. & Bennett, E. M. Phosphorus accumulation in Saint Lawrence River watershed soils: a century-long perspective. Ecosystems 12, 621–635 (2009).
Sattari, S. Z., Bouwman, A. F., Giller, K. E. & vanIttersum, M. K. Residual soil phosphorus as the missing piece in the global phosphorus crisis puzzle. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 6348–6353 (2012).
Hale, R. L., Grimm, N. B., Vörösmarty, C. J. & Fekete, B. Nitrogen and phosphorus fluxes from watersheds of the northeast US from 1930 to 2000: role of anthropogenic nutrient inputs, infrastructure, and runoff. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 29, 341–356 (2015).
Hong, B. et al. Evaluating regional variation of net anthropogenic nitrogen and phosphorus inputs (NANI/NAPI), major drivers, nutrient retention pattern and management implications in the multinational areas of Baltic Sea basin. Ecol. Model. 227, 117–135 (2012).
Garnier, J. et al. Phosphorus budget in the water-agro-food system at nested scales in two contrasted regions of the world (ASEAN-8 and EU-27). Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 29, 1348–1368 (2015).
Galloway, J. N. et al. Transformation of the nitrogen cycle: recent trends, questions, and potential solutions. Science 320, 889–892 (2008).
Sen, I. S. & Peucker-Ehrenbrink, B. Anthropogenic disturbance of element cycles at the Earth’s surface. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 8601–8609 (2012).
Landers, J. Toledo water crisis highlights need to reduce phosphorus in Lake Erie. Civil Eng. 84, 27–32 (2014).
Li, H. G. et al. Past, present, and future use of phosphorus in Chinese agriculture and its influence on phosphorus losses. Ambio 44, S274–S285 (2015).
Seitzinger, S. P. et al. Global river nutrient export: a scenario analysis of past and future trends. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 24, 003587 (2010).
Simons, A., Solomon, D., Chibssa, W., Blalock, G. & Lehmann, J. Filling the phosphorus fertilizer gap in developing countries. Nature Geosci. 7, 3 (2014).
MacDonald, G. K., Bennett, E. M., Potter, P. A. & Ramankutty, N. Agronomic phosphorus imbalances across the world’s croplands. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 3086–3091 (2011).
Scavia, D. et al. Assessing and addressing the re-eutrophication of Lake Erie: central basin hypoxia. J. G. Lakes Res. 40, 226–246 (2014).
Work was supported by the NSF Research Coordination Network Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Program (RCN-SEES, award #1230603), the University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, the National Basic Research Program of China (973-2015CB150405), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31330070), and the Washington State University Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Powers, S., Bruulsema, T., Burt, T. et al. Long-term accumulation and transport of anthropogenic phosphorus in three river basins. Nature Geosci 9, 353–356 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2693
Partial replacement of inorganic phosphorus (P) by organic manure reshapes phosphate mobilizing bacterial community and promotes P bioavailability in a paddy soil
Science of The Total Environment (2020)
Distribution Characteristics and Spatial Differences of Phosphorus in the Main Stream of the Urban River Stretches of the Middle and Lower Reaches of the Yangtze River
Changing Rainfall Patterns Over the Western Lake Erie Basin (1975–2017): Effects on Tributary Discharge and Phosphorus Load
Water Resources Research (2020)
Long-term (1980–2015) changes in net anthropogenic phosphorus inputs and riverine phosphorus export in the Yangtze River basin
Water Research (2020)
Journal of Cleaner Production (2020)