Nitrous oxide emission from denitrification in stream and river networks

Jake J. Beaulieu, Jennifer L. Tank, Stephen K. Hamilton, Wilfred M. Wollheim, Robert O. Hall, Patrick J. Mulholland, Bruce J. Peterson, Linda R. Ashkenas, Lee W. Cooper, Clifford N. Dahm, Walter K. Dodds, Nancy B. Grimm, Sherri L. Johnson, William H. McDowell, Geoffrey C. Poole, H. Maurice Valett, Clay P. Arango, Melody J. Bernot, Amy J. Burgin, Chelsea L. CrenshawAshley M. Helton, Laura T. Johnson, Jonathan M. O'Brien, Jody D. Potter, Richard W. Sheibley, Daniel J. Sobota, Suzanne M. Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change and stratospheric ozone destruction. Anthropogenic nitrogen (N) loading to river networks is a potentially important source of N 2O via microbial denitrification that converts N to N2O and dinitrogen (N2). The fraction of denitrified N that escapes as N2O rather than N2 (i.e., the N2O yield) is an important determinant of how much N2O is produced by river networks, but little is known about the N2O yield in flowing waters. Here, we present the results of whole-stream 15N-tracer additions conducted in 72 headwater streams draining multiple land-use types across the United States. We found that stream denitrification produces N2O at rates that increase with stream water nitrate (NO3-) concentrations, but that <1% of denitrified N is converted to N2O. Unlike some previous studies, we found no relationship between the N2O yield and stream water NO3-. We suggest that increased stream NO3- loading stimulates denitrification and concomitant N2O production, but does not increase the N2O yield. In our study, most streams were sources of N2O to the atmosphere and the highest emission rates were observed in streams draining urban basins. Using a global river network model, we estimate that microbial N transformations (e.g., denitrification and nitrification) convert at least 0.68 Tg·y -1 of anthropogenic N inputs to N2O in river networks, equivalent to 10% of the global anthropogenic N2O emission rate. This estimate of stream and river N2O emissions is three times greater than estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)214-219
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 4 2011


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