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

Document NameAtmospheric deposition of nitrogen: implications for nutrient over-enrichment of coastal waters
Document AuthorPaerl, H. W.
Dennis, R.L.
Whitall, D.R.
Short DescriptionEstuaries, 25, 677-693
CategorySubgroup 1: Characterization of the Cause(s) of Hypoxia
Publication Year2001

Abstract: Atmospheric deposition of nitrogen (AD-N) is a significant source of nitrogen enrichment to nitrogen (N)-limited estuarine and coastal waters downwind of anthropogenic emissions. Along the eastern U.S. coast and eastern Gulf of Mexico, AD-N currently accounts for 10% to over 40% of new N loading to estuaries. Extension of the regional acid deposition model (RADM) to coastal shelf waters indicates that 11, 5.6, and 5.6 kg N ha(-1) may be deposited on the continental shelf areas of the northeastern U.S. coast, southeast U.S. coast, and eastern Gulf of Mexico, respectively. AD-N approximates or exceeds riverine N inputs in many coastal regions. From a spatial perspective, AD-N is a unique source of N enrichment to estuarine and coastal waters because, for a receiving water body, the airshed may exceed the watershed by 10-20 fold. AD-N may originate far outside of the currently managed watersheds. AD-N may increase in importance as a new N source by affecting waters downstream of the oligohaline and mesohaline estuarine nutrient filters where large amounts of terrestrially-supplied N are assimilated and denitrified. Regionally and globally, N deposition associated with urbanization (NOx, peroxyacetyl nitrate, or PAN) and agricultural expansion (NH4+ and possibly organic N) has increased in coastal airsheds. Recent growth and intensification of animal (poultry, swine, cattle) operations in the midwest and mid-Atlantic regions have led to increasing amounts of NH4+ emission and deposition, according to a three decadal analysis of the National Acid Deposition Program network. In western Europe, where livestock operations have dominated agricultural production for the better part of this century, NH4+ is the most abundant form of AD-N. AD-N deposition in the U.S. is still dominated by oxides of N (NOx) emitted from fossil fuel combustion; annual NH4+ deposition is increasing, and in some regions is approaching total NO3- deposition. In receiving estuarine and coastal waters, phytoplankton community structural and functional changes, associated water quality, and trophic and biogeochemical alterations (i.e., algal blooms, hypoxia, food web, and fisheries habitat disruption) are frequent consequences of N-driven eutrophication. Increases in and changing proportions of various new N sources regulate phytoplankton competitive interactions, dominance, and successional patterns. These quantitative and qualitative aspects of AD-N and other atmospheric nutrient sources (e.g., iron) may promote biotic changes now apparent in estuarine and coastal waters, including the proliferation of harmful algal blooms, with cascading impacts on water quality and fisheries.