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The contribution of manure and fertilizer nitrogen to atmospheric nitrous oxide since 1860


Atmospheric nitrous oxide concentrations have been increasing since the industrial revolution and currently account for 6% of total anthropogenic radiative forcing. Microbial production in soils is the dominant nitrous oxide source; this has increased with increasing use of nitrogen fertilizers. However, fertilizer use alone cannot account for the historical trends of atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxide. Here, I analyse atmospheric concentrations, industrial sources of nitrous oxide, and fertilizer and manure production since 1860. Before 1960, agricultural expansion, including livestock production, may have caused globally significant mining of soil nitrogen, fuelling a steady increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide. After 1960, the rate of the increase rose, due to accelerating use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Using a regression model, I show that 2.0% of manure nitrogen and 2.5% of fertilizer nitrogen was converted to nitrous oxide between 1860 and 2005; these percentage contributions explain the entire pattern of increasing nitrous oxide concentrations over this period. Consideration of processes that re-concentrate soil nitrogen, such as manure production by livestock, improved ‘hind-casting’ of nitrous oxide emissions. As animal protein consumption in human diets increases globally, management of manure will be an important component of future efforts to reduce anthropogenic nitrous oxide sources.

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Figure 1: Historical reconstructions of atmospheric N2O and its inferred anthropogenic sources.


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I thank the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Science Foundation (Award no. 0443439) for financial support.

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Correspondence to Eric A. Davidson.

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Davidson, E. The contribution of manure and fertilizer nitrogen to atmospheric nitrous oxide since 1860. Nature Geosci 2, 659–662 (2009).

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