Long-term accumulation and transport of anthropogenic phosphorus in three river basins


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.

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Figure 1: Component P fluxes used in calculating the net annual P inputs for the three river basins (Maumee River, USA; Thames River, UK; Yangtze River, China).
Figure 2: Gross P inputs and outputs to/from the landscape P pool (soils plus aquatic systems) of the Maumee and Thames Basins.
Figure 3: Net annual P input and accumulation curves for landscape P pools (soils plus aquatic systems) of three river basins (Maumee River, USA; Thames River, UK; Yangtze River, China).


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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).

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S.M.P. led the writing of the paper, compiled the data, and analysed the data. Key P data sets were contributed by H.P.J., N.J.K.H., F.W., T.W.B. and J.S. All authors participated in the interpretation of results and the writing and editing process.

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Correspondence to Stephen M. Powers.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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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

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