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.

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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.


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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.

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Correspondence to Hanqin Tian.

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Supplementary Information

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

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Yao, Y., Tian, H., Shi, H. et al. Increased global nitrous oxide emissions from streams and rivers in the Anthropocene. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 138–142 (2020).

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