COLLEGE STATION A large quantity of nitrogen compounds emitted into the atmosphere by humans through the burning of fossil fuels and the use of nitrogen fertilizers enters the oceans and may lead to the removal of some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, concluded a team of international scientists led by Texas A&M University Distinguished Professor of Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences Robert Duce.
The team of 30 experts from institutions around the world presented its conclusions in the current issue of the journal Science.
Human-caused atmospheric nitrogen compounds are carried by wind and deposited into the ocean, where they act as a fertilizer and lead to increased production of marine plant life. The increase in plant life causes more carbon dioxide to be drawn from the atmosphere into the ocean. This process results in the removal of about 10 percent of the human-caused carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus potentially reducing the climate warming potential, according to the teams paper.
However, some of the nitrogen deposited in the ocean is re-processed to form another nitrogen compound called nitrous oxide, which is then released back into the atmosphere from the ocean. Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas itself about 300 times more powerful per molecule than carbon dioxide thus cancelling out about two-thirds of the apparent gain from the carbon dioxide removal, Duce explained. But of course, the whole system is so complex that were still rather unsure about what some of the other impacts might be within the ocean, he said.
In most areas of the ocean, nitrogen is the nutrient that limits the production of plant life, Duce said. So when all of the nitrogen in an area of the surface ocean is used up, no more plant life forms in that area. The team found that human-caused nitrogen deposits account for up to one-third of the external input of nitrogen into the ocean, and this increase in nitrogen availabl
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Texas A&M University