Where did all the nitrogen go? Fate of nitrogen inputs to large watersheds in the northeastern U.S.A.

N. Van Breemen, E. W. Boyer, C. L. Goodale, N. A. Jaworski, K. Paustian, S. P. Seitzinger, K. Lajtha, B. Mayer, D. Van Dam, R. W. Howarth, K. J. Nadelhoffer, M. Eve, G. Billen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

311 Scopus citations


To assess the fate of the large amounts of nitrogen (N) brought into the environment by human activities, we constructed N budgets for sixteen large watersheds (475 to 70,189 km 2) in the northeastern U.S.A. These watersheds are mainly forested (48-87%), but vary widely with respect to land use and population density. We combined published data and empirical and process models to set up a complete N budget for these sixteen watersheds. Atmospheric deposition, fertilizer application, net feed and food inputs, biological fixation, river discharge, wood accumulation and export, changes in soil N, and denitrification losses in the landscape and in rivers were considered for the period 1988 to 1992. For the whole area, on average 3420 kg of N is imported annually per km 2 of land. Atmospheric N deposition, N 2 fixation by plants, and N imported in commercial products (fertilizers, food and feed) contributed to the input in roughly equal contributions. We quantified the fate of these inputs by independent estimates of storage and loss terms, except for denitrification from land, which was estimated from the difference between all inputs and all other storage and loss terms. Of the total storage and losses in the watersheds, about half of the N is lost in gaseous form (51%, largely by denitrification). Additional N is lost in riverine export (20%), in food exports (6%), and in wood exports (5%). Change in storage of N in the watersheds in soil organic matter (9%) and wood (9%) accounts for the remainder of the sinks. The presence of appreciable changes in total N storage on land, which we probably under-rather than overestimated, shows that the N budget is not in steady state, so that drainage and denitrification exports of N may well increase further in the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)267-293
Number of pages27
StatePublished - 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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