U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Science Advisory Board
Background Information

Document NameThe nitrogen cascade.
Document AuthorGalloway, J.N.
Aber, J.D.
Erisman, J.W.
Seitzinger, S.P.
Howarth, R.W.
Cowling, E.B.
Cosby, B.J.
Short DescriptionBioScience, 53, 341-356.
CategorySubgroup 3: Scientific Basis for Goals and Management Options
Publication Year2003

Abstract: Human production of food and energy is the dominant continental process that breaks the triple bond in molecular nitrogen (N-2) and creates reactive nitrogen (Nr) species. Circulation of anthropogenic Nr in Earth's atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere has a wide variety of consequences, which are magnified with time as Nr moves along its biogeochemical pathway. The same atom of Nr can cause multiple effects in the atmosphere, in terrestrial ecosystems, in freshwater and marine systems, and on human health. We call this sequence of effects the nitrogen cascade. As the cascade progresses, the origin of Nr becomes unimportant. Reactive nitrogen does not cascade at the same rate through all environmental systems; some systems have the ability to accumulate Nr, which leads to lag times in the continuation of the cascade. These lags slow the cascade and result in Nr accumulation in certain reservoirs, which in turn can enhance the effects of Nr on that environment. The only way to eliminate Nr accumulation and stop the cascade is to convert Nr back to nonreactive N-2.