Is Nitrogen the Next Carbon?


Just as carbon fueled the Industrial Revolution, nitrogen has fueled an Agricultural Revolution. The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and the cultivation of nitrogen-fixing crops both expanded exponentially during the last century, with most of the increase occurring after 1960. As a result, the current flux of reactive, or fixed, nitrogen compounds to the biosphere due to human activities is roughly equivalent to the total flux of fixed nitrogen from all natural sources, both on land masses and in the world’s oceans.

Natural fluxes of fixed nitrogen are subject to very large uncertainties, but anthropogenic production of reactive nitrogen has increased almost five-fold in the last half-century, and this rapid increase in anthropogenic fixed nitrogen has removed any uncertainty on the relative importance of anthropogenic fluxes to the natural budget. The increased use of nitrogen has been critical for increased crop yields and protein production needed to keep pace with the growing world population. However, similar to carbon, the release of fixed nitrogen into the natural environment is linked to adverse consequences at local, regional, and global scales. Anthropogenic contributions of fixed nitrogen continue to grow relative to the natural budget, with uncertain consequences.