Increased global nitrous oxide emissions from streams and rivers in the Anthropocene


Emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) from the world’s river networks constitute a poorly constrained term in the global N2O budget1,2. This N2O component was previously estimated as indirect emissions from agricultural soils3 with large uncertainties4,5,6,7,8,9,10. Here, we present an improved model representation of nitrogen and N2O processes of the land–ocean aquatic continuum11 constrained with an ensemble of 11 data products. The model–data framework provides a quantification for how changes in nitrogen inputs (fertilizer, deposition and manure), climate and atmospheric CO2 concentration, and terrestrial processes have affected the N2O emissions from the world’s streams and rivers during 1900–2016. The results show a fourfold increase of global riverine N2O emissions from 70.4 ± 15.4 Gg N2O-N yr−1 in 1900 to 291.3 ± 58.6 Gg N2O-N yr−1 in 2016, although the N2O emissions started to decline after the early 2000s. The small rivers in headwater zones (lower than fourth-order streams) contributed up to 85% of global riverine N2O emissions. Nitrogen loads on headwater streams and groundwater from human activities, primarily agricultural nitrogen applications, play an important role in the increase of global riverine N2O emissions.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Temporal pattern of global riverine N2O emission and factorial analysis from 1900 to 2016.
Fig. 2: Global annual mean riverine N2O fluxes during the 2000s estimated by DLEM.
Fig. 3: The spatial distribution of modelled annual total N2O emission at a resolution of 0.5° × 0.5°.
Fig. 4: Interannual variations of riverine N2O emissions in the ten regions from 1900 to 2016.

Data availability

The relevant datasets of this study are archived in the box site of International Center for Climate and Global Change Research at Auburn University ( Source data for Figs. 14 and Supplementary Figs. 1–10 are provided with the paper.

Code availability

The relevant code of this study is available from the corresponding author on request.


  1. 1.

    Ciais, P. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 465–570 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  2. 2.

    Tian, H. et al. The terrestrial biosphere as a net source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Nature 531, 225–228 (2016).

  3. 3.

    Davidson, E. A. & Kanter, D. Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 105012 (2014).

  4. 4.

    Seitzinger, S. P., Kroeze, C. & Styles, R. V. Global distribution of N2O emissions from aquatic systems: natural emissions and anthropogenic effects. Chemosphere-Glob. Change Sci. 2, 267–279 (2000).

  5. 5.

    Kroeze, C., Dumont, E. & Seitzinger, S. P. New estimates of global emissions of N2O from rivers and estuaries. Environ. Sci. 2, 159–165 (2005).

  6. 6.

    Beaulieu, J. J. et al. Nitrous oxide emission from denitrification in stream and river networks. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 214–219 (2011).

  7. 7.

    Kroeze, C. & Seitzinger, S. P. Nitrogen inputs to rivers, estuaries and continental shelves and related nitrous oxide emissions in 1990 and 2050: a global model. Nutr. Cycl. Agroecosyst. 52, 195–212 (1998).

  8. 8.

    Maavara, T. et al. Nitrous oxide emissions from inland waters: are IPCC estimates too high? Glob. Change Biol. 25, 473–488 (2018).

  9. 9.

    Hu, M., Chen, D. & Dahlgren, R. A. Modeling nitrous oxide emission from rivers: a global assessment. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 3566–3582 (2016).

  10. 10.

    Reay, D. S. et al. Global agriculture and nitrous oxide emissions. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 410 (2012).

  11. 11.

    Regnier, P. et al. Anthropogenic perturbation of the carbon fluxes from land to ocean. Nat. Geosci. 6, 597 (2013).

  12. 12.

    Ciais, P. et al. The impact of lateral carbon fluxes on the European carbon balance. Biogeosciences 5, 1259–1271 (2008).

  13. 13.

    Tian, H. et al. Global soil nitrous oxide emissions since the preindustrial era estimated by an ensemble of terrestrial biosphere models: magnitude, attribution, and uncertainty. Glob. Change Biol. 25, 640–659 (2018).

  14. 14.

    Tian, H. et al. Anthropogenic and climatic influences on carbon fluxes from eastern North America to the Atlantic Ocean: a process-based modeling study. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 120, 757–772 (2015).

  15. 15.

    Li, H.-Y. et al. Evaluating global streamflow simulations by a physically based routing model coupled with the community land model. J. Hydrometeorol. 16, 948–971 (2015).

  16. 16.

    Yang, Q. et al. Increased nitrogen export from eastern North America to the Atlantic Ocean due to climatic and anthropogenic changes during 1901–2008. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 120, 1046–1068 (2015).

  17. 17.

    Terrer, C. et al. Nitrogen and phosphorus constrain the CO2 fertilization of global plant biomass. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 684–689 (2019).

  18. 18.

    Soued, C., del Giorgio, P. A. & Maranger, R. Nitrous oxide sinks and emissions in boreal aquatic networks in Québec. Nat. Geosci. 9, 116–120 (2016).

  19. 19.

    Turner, P. A. et al. Indirect nitrous oxide emissions from streams within the US Corn Belt scale with stream order. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 9839–9843 (2015).

  20. 20.

    Garnier, J. et al. Nitrous oxide (N2O) in the Seine river and basin: observations and budgets. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 133, 223–233 (2009).

  21. 21.

    Marzadri, A., Dee, M. M., Tonina, D., Bellin, A. & Tank, J. L. Role of surface and subsurface processes in scaling N2O emissions along riverine networks. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 4330–4335 (2017).

  22. 22.

    Allen, G. H. et al. Similarity of stream width distributions across headwater systems. Nat. Commun. 9, 610 (2018).

  23. 23.

    Raymond, P. A. et al. Global carbon dioxide emissions from inland waters. Nature 503, 355–359 (2013).

  24. 24.

    Rosamond, M. S., Thuss, S. J. & Schiff, S. L. Dependence of riverine nitrous oxide emissions on dissolved oxygen levels. Nat. Geosci. 5, 715–718 (2012).

  25. 25.

    Quick, A. M. et al. Nitrous oxide from streams and rivers: a review of primary biogeochemical pathways and environmental variables. Earth-Sci. Rev. 191, 224–262 (2019).

  26. 26.

    FAOSTAT Database (FAO, 2018).

  27. 27.

    Kanter, D. R., Zhang, X., Mauzerall, D. L., Malyshev, S. & Shevliakova, E. The importance of climate change and nitrogen use efficiency for future nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 094003 (2016).

  28. 28.

    Liu, Y. et al. Field-experiment constraints on the enhancement of the terrestrial carbon sink by CO2 fertilization. Nat. Geosci. 12, 809–814 (2019).

  29. 29.

    Loken, L. C. et al. Limited nitrate retention capacity in the Upper Mississippi River. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 074030 (2018).

  30. 30.

    Ulseth, A. J. et al. Distinct air–water gas exchange regimes in low- and high-energy streams. Nat. Geosci. 12, 259 (2019).

  31. 31.

    Jung, M., Henkel, K., Herold, M. & Churkina, G. Exploiting synergies of global land cover products for carbon cycle modeling. Remote Sens. Environ. 101, 534–553 (2006).

  32. 32.

    Lamarque, J.-F. et al. The atmospheric chemistry and climate model intercomparison project (ACCMIP): overview and description of models, simulations and climate diagnostics. Geosci. Model Dev. 6, 179–206 (2013).

  33. 33.

    Eyring, V. et al. Overview of IGAC/SPARC Chemistry–Climate Model Initiative (CCMI) Community Simulations in Support of Upcoming Ozone and Climate Assessments SPARC Newsletter No. 40 (WMO-WCRP, 2013).

  34. 34.

    Lu, C. & Tian, H. Global nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use for agriculture production in the past half century: shifted hot spots and nutrient imbalance. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 181–192 (2017).

  35. 35.

    Nishina, K., Ito, A., Hanasaki, N. & Hayashi, S. Reconstruction of spatially detailed global map of NH4 + and NO3 application in synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 149–162 (2017).

  36. 36.

    Zaehle, S., Ciais, P., Friend, A. D. & Prieur, V. Carbon benefits of anthropogenic reactive nitrogen offset by nitrous oxide emissions. Nat. Geosci. 4, 601 (2011).

  37. 37.

    Zhang, B. et al. Global manure nitrogen production and application in cropland during 1860–2014: a 5 arcmin gridded global dataset for Earth system modeling. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 667–678 (2017).

  38. 38.

    Van Drecht, G., Bouwman, A. F., Harrison, J. & Knoop, J. M. Global nitrogen and phosphate in urban wastewater for the period 1970 to 2050. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 23, GB0A03 (2009).

  39. 39.

    Allen, G. H. & Pavelsky, T. M. Global extent of rivers and streams. Science 361, 585–588 (2018).

  40. 40.

    Bastviken, D., Tranvik, L. J., Downing, J. A., Crill, P. M. & Enrich-Prast, A. Freshwater methane emissions offset the continental carbon sink. Science 331, 50–50 (2011).

  41. 41.

    Jahangir, M. M. et al. Groundwater: a pathway for terrestrial C and N losses and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 159, 40–48 (2012).

  42. 42.

    Tian, H. et al. Global methane and nitrous oxide emissions from terrestrial ecosystems due to multiple environmental changes. Ecosyst. Health Sustain. 1, 1–20 (2015).

  43. 43.

    Tian, H. et al. Net exchanges of CO2, CH4, and N2O between China’s terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere and their contributions to global climate warming. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 116, G02011 (2011).

  44. 44.

    Heuvelink, G. B. Error Propagation in Environmental Modelling with GIS (CRC, 1998).

Download references


This research was made possible partly by NSF grant nos. 1903722 and 1243232; NASA grant nos. NNX14AO73G, NNX10AU06G, NNX11AD47G and NNX14AF93G; NOAA grant nos. NA16NOS4780207 and NA16NOS4780204; Ocean University of China-Auburn University Joint Progam; and Andrew Carnegie Fellowship Award no. G-F-19-56910. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Author information

H.T. initiated and designed this research. Y.Y. improved and developed the model and implemented simulation experiments. H.S. and R.X. contributed to result analysis and interpretation. N.P. gave technical support to implement simulation experiments and uncertainty analysis. J.G.C., S.P. and all other authors contributed to the writing and development of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Hanqin Tian.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Texts 1 and 2, Figs. 1–10, Tables 1–6 and references.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Yao, Y., Tian, H., Shi, H. et al. Increased global nitrous oxide emissions from streams and rivers in the Anthropocene. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2019).

Download citation