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Reactive Nitrogen Cycling in the Atmosphere and Ocean

  • Altieri, Katye E.
  • Fawcett, Sarah E.
  • Hastings, Meredith G.
Published Article
Annual Reviews
Publication Date
May 30, 2021
DOI: 10.1146/annurev-earth-083120-052147
Annual Reviews


The budget of reactive nitrogen (Nr; oxidized and reduced inorganic and organic forms of nitrogen) has at least doubled since the preindustrial era due to human activities. Excess Nr causes significant detrimental effects on many terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; less is known about the impact on the open ocean. Nr deposition may already rival biological N2 fixation quantitatively and will likely continue to rise. However, it is unclear how much of the Nr currently deposited to the ocean is external in origin. Understanding the importance of ocean Nr emissions versus external Nr deposition is key to quantifying the influence of deposition on ocean biogeochemistry and climate. This article reviews our understanding of the impacts of Nr deposition on the open ocean and the emissions of Nr from the ocean, placing particular emphasis on stable isotopes as a tool to investigate the surface ocean–lower atmosphere Nr cycle and its variations over time. ▪  The ocean has a dynamic exchange of reactive nitrogen with the atmosphere and is not just a passive recipient of nitrogen pollution from land. ▪  Tracing anthropogenic nitrogen deposition to the ocean is a challenge due to overlapping geochemical signatures with other nitrogen inputs. ▪  However, studies suggest an imprint of external (anthropogenic) nitrogen deposition in the Mediterranean Sea and North Pacific Ocean. ▪  Climate change will impact nitrogen emissions from the ocean through warming, acidification, stratification, and changes in food webs.

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