16 Jun Opinion – Why care about Nitrogen and Ecosystems restoration?
Opinion Piece by Mark Sutton, Director, GEF/UNEP project “Towards the International Nitrogen Management System” (INMS). UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Edinburgh
Loss of nitrogen to the environment causes a plethora of pollution problems. In addition to contributing to air pollution and climate change, it has a massive impact on ecosystems.
One of the big challenges for nitrogen is summed up by the slogan ‘Everywhere and Invisible’. Nitrogen losses are hard to see, whether we are talking about ‘diffuse pollution’ from agriculture, wastewater or nitrogen oxides emissions from burning fossil fuels.
When it comes to restoring ecosystems, this means that it is all too easy to forget about nitrogen. Yet we do so at our peril!
Take for example, some of our most vulnerable ecosystems, natural peatlands. Many such systems are naturally ‘oligotrophic’, which means that they are adapted to very few nutrients. With too much nitrogen pollution from the atmosphere, or too many nutrients from water run-off (including both nitrogen and phosphorus), then these precious ecosystems will suffer. Biodiversity is lost as nitrogen-loving species outcompete the natural flora, while reducing their ability to store carbon in the ground.
My thinking about these questions has benefited greatly by working with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to manage the threat of ammonia pollution. Ammonia is a form of nitrogen that is lost to the atmosphere from livestock manures and nitrogen fertilizers. With high ammonia emissions from this agricultural landscape, the native peatlands – critical for Ireland’s biodiversity – are under serious threat, with key plant species being lost and carbon storage threatened. The problem is that such peatlands are under many threats, and nitrogen is just one of them.
For more information please contact Mark Sutton : firstname.lastname@example.org
* Picture © Mark Sutton and Netty van Dijk, UKCEH).