Globally important nitrous oxide emissions from croplands induced by freeze–thaw cycles


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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Figure 1: Daily N2O fluxes and soil surface conditions at two seasonally frozen sites.
Figure 2: Relationship between cumulative N2O emissions and CFD at 5 cm soil depth for November to April.
Figure 3: Global N2O emissions due to soil freeze–thaw from seasonally frozen croplands.


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This study was funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grants to C.W.-R., A.A.B., M.T.; grants from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada/Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Program and the NSERC Strategic program to C.W.-R. and M.T.; and an Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs program to C.W.-R. Thoughtful suggestions and comments by Eric Davidson on an earlier version of this manuscript were greatly appreciated.

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C.W.-R., K.A.C., D.A., M.T. and A.A.B. conceptualized the study. S.E.B. and X.G. conducted the flux sampling data processing. J.T.A. performed global data processing. C.W.-R., K.A.C. and D.A. performed data analyses. All authors contributed to the writing.

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Correspondence to Claudia Wagner-Riddle.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Wagner-Riddle, C., Congreves, K., Abalos, D. et al. Globally important nitrous oxide emissions from croplands induced by freeze–thaw cycles. Nature Geosci 10, 279–283 (2017).

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