Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Abiotic nitrous oxide emission from the hypersaline Don Juan Pond in Antarctica


Nitrous oxide is a potent atmospheric greenhouse gas1 that contributes to ozone destruction2. Biological processes such as nitrification and denitrification are thought to drive nitrous oxide production in soils, which comprise the largest source of nitrous oxide to the atmosphere1. Here we present measurements of the concentration and isotopic composition of nitrous oxide in soil pore spaces in samples taken near Don Juan Pond, a metabolically dormant hypersaline pond in Southern Victoria Land, Antarctica in 2006, 2007 and 2008, together with in situ fluxes of nitrous oxide from the soil to the atmosphere. We find fluxes of nitrous oxide that rival those measured in fertilized tropical soils3. Laboratory experiments—in which nitrite-rich brine was reacted with a variety of minerals containing Fe(II)—reveal a new mechanism of abiotic water–rock reaction that could support nitrous oxide fluxes at Don Juan Pond. Our findings illustrate a dynamic and unexpected link between the geosphere and atmosphere.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Production of N2O in laboratory experiments.
Figure 2: N2O production as a function of temperature.


  1. Forster, P. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Ravishankara, A. R., Daniel, J. S. & Portmann, R. W. Nitrous oxide (N2O): The dominant ozone-depleting substance emitted in the 21st century. Science 329, 123–125 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Perez, T. et al. Identifying the agricultural imprint on the global N2O budget using stable isotopes. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 9869–9878 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Burt, D. M. & Knauth, L. P. Electrically conducting, Ca-rich brines, rather than water, expected in the Martian subsurface. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 10.1029/2002JE001862 (2003).

  5. Clarkson, P. D. Geology of the Shackleton Range: IV. The Dolerite Dykes. Br. Antarct. Surv. Bull. 53, 210–212 (1981).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Harvey, R. P. The Ferrar dolerite: An Antarctic analog for Martian basaltic lithologies and weathering process. Workshop on the Martian Highlands and Mojave Desert Analogs, 4012.pdf (2001).

  7. Middelburg, J. J. et al. Nitrous oxide emissions from estuarine intertidal sediments. Hydrobiologia 311, 43–55 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Gregorich, E. G. et al. Emission of CO2, CH4 and N2O from lakeshore soils in an Antarctic Dry Valley. Soil Biol. Biochem. 38, 3120–3129 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Priscu, J. C., Downes, M. T. & McKay, C. P. Extreme supersaturation of nitrous oxide in a poorly ventilated Antarctic lake. Limnol. Oceanogr. 41, 1544–1551 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Thorn, K. A. & Mikita, M. A. Nitrite fixation by humic substances: Nitrogen-15 nuclear magnetic resonance evidence for potential intermediates in chemodenitrification. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 64, 568–582 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Postma, D. Kinetics of nitrate reduction by detrital Fe(II)-silicates. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 54, 903–908 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Evans, B. W. Control of the products of serpentinization by the Fe2+–Mg+1 exchange potential of olivine and orthopyroxene. J. Petrol. 49, 1873–1887 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Kelley, D. S., Baross, J. A. & Delaney, J. R. Volcanoes, fluids, and life at mid-ocean ridge spreading centers. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 30, 385–491 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Sørensen, J. & Thorling, L. Stimulation by lepidocrocite (7-FeOOH) of Fe(II)-dependent nitrite reduction. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 55, 1289–1294 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Yoshida, N. & Toyoda, S. Constraining the atmospheric N2O budget from intramolecular site preference in N2O isotopomers. Nature 405, 330–334 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Sutka, R. L. et al. Distinguishing nitrous oxide production from nitrification and denitrification on the basis of isotopomer abundance. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 72, 638–644 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Schmidt, H-L., Werner, R. A., Yoshida, N. & Well, R. Is the isotopic composition of nitrous oxide an indicator for its origin from nitrification or denitrification? A theoretical approach from referred data and microbiological and enzyme kinetic aspects. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 18, 2036–2040 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Sutka, R. L., Ostrom, N. E., Ostrom, P. H., Gandhi, H. & Breznak, J. A. Nitrogen isotopomer site preference of N2O produced by Nitrosomonas europaea and Methylococcus capsulatus Bath. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 18, 1411–1412 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Bol, R. et al. Dual isotope and isotopomer ratios of N2O emitted from a temperate grassland soil after fertiliser application. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 17, 2550–2556 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Well, R., Kurganova, I., de Gerenyu, V. L. & Flessa, H. Isotopomer signatures of soil-emitted N2O under different moisture conditions—a microcosm study with arable loess soil. Soil Biol. Biochem. 38, 2923–2933 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Toyoda, S. et al. Fractionation of N2O isotopomers during production by denitrifier. Soil Biol. Biochem. 37, 1535–1545 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Ostrom, N. E. et al. Isotopologue effects during N2O reduction in soils and in pure cultures of denitrifiers. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 112, 10.1029/2006JG00 (2007).

  23. Toyoda, S. et al. Isotopomeric characterization of N2O produced, consumed, and emitted by automobiles. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 22, 603–612 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Rakshit, S., Matocha, C. J. & Coyne, M. S. Nitrate reduction by siderite. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 72, 1070–1077 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Schulte, M., Blake, D., Hoehler, T. & McCollom, T. Serpentinization and its implications for life in early Earth and Mars. Astrobiology 6, 364–376 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Mancinelli, R. L. & Banin, A. Where is the nitrogen on Mars? Int. J. Astrobiol. 2, 217–225 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Manning, C. V., McKay, C. P. & Zahnle, K. J. The nitrogen cycle on Mars: Impact decomposition of near-surface nitrates as a source for a nitrogen steady state. Icarus 197, 60–64 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hutchinson, G. L. & Mosier, A. R. Improved soil cover method for field measurement of nitrous oxide fluxes. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 45, 311–316 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. McIlvin, M. & Casciotti, K. L. Fully automated system for stable isotopic analyses of dissolved nitrous oxide at natural abundance levels. Limnol. Oceanogr. 8, 54–66 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems Program (ANT-0739516 to S.B.J., V.A.S. and M.T.M.) and the McMurdo Microbial Observatory program (MCB-0237576 to M.T.M. and MCB-0237335 to J.C.P.). We thank K. Welsh (MCM) and K. Hunter (UGA) for quantifying concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrogen species; M. McIlvin and C. Frame (WHOI) for assistance with the N and O isotopic analyses; and C. Meile for helpful discussions.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



V.A.S., M.T.M., M.W.B., and J.C.P. conducted the fieldwork; V.A.S. and S.B.J. designed experiments and V.A.S. and M.W.B. carried them out; K.L.C. led the natural abundance nitrogen isotopic analyses and interpretation; C.P.M. provided insight to the Mars nitrogen cycle; S.B.J. wrote the paper and all authors commented on it.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samantha B. Joye.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 815 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Samarkin, V., Madigan, M., Bowles, M. et al. Abiotic nitrous oxide emission from the hypersaline Don Juan Pond in Antarctica. Nature Geosci 3, 341–344 (2010).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing