Riverine nitrogen export from the continents to the coasts

Elizabeth W. Boyer, Robert W. Howarth, James N. Galloway, Frank J. Dentener, Pamela A. Green, Charles J. Vörösmarty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

247 Scopus citations


We present an overview of riverine nitrogen flux calculations that were prepared for the International Nitrogen Initiative's current global assessment of nitrogen cycles: past, present, and future (Galloway et al., 2004). We quantified anthropogenic and natural inputs of reactive nitrogen (N) to terrestrial landscapes and the associated riverine N fluxes. Anthropogenic inputs include fossil-fuel derived atmospheric deposition, fixation in cultivated croplands, fertilizer use, and the net import in human food and animal feedstuffs. Natural inputs include natural biological N fixation in forests and other noncultivated vegetated lands, and fixation by lightning. We use an empirical model relating total N inputs per landscape area to the total flux of N discharged in rivers based on watershed data from contrasting ecosystems spanning multiple spatial scales. With this approach, we simulate riverine N loads to the coastal zone and to inland waters from the continents. Globally, rivers exported about 59 Tg N yr-1, with 11 Tg N yr-1 transported to dry lands and inland receiving waters, and 48 Tg N yr-1 transported to the coastal zone. Rates of riverine N loss vary greatly among the continents, reflecting the regional differences in population and the associated anthropogenic N inputs. We compare our estimates to other approaches that have been reported in the literature. Our work provides an understanding of the sources of N to landscapes and the associated N fluxes in rivers, and highlights how anthropogenic activities impact N cycling around the world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberGB1S91
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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