Fertilizer contributes to atmospheric nitrous oxide

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Chemists from University of California, Berkeley, have released the results of a study they did that confirms that increased fertilizer use over the past 50 years has helped increase atmospheric nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. The new study is published in the April issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

The assumption by climate scientists has been that nitrogen-based fertilizer is the cause of increased nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. The study used nitrogen isotope data to indentify the fingerprint of fertilizer in archived air samples from Antarctica and Tasmania.

“We are not vilifying fertilizer,” said study leader Kristie Boering, A UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and of earth and planetary science. “But we hope this study will contribute to changes in fertilizer use and agricultural practices that will help to mitigate the release of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.”

Scientists point to an increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide that coincided with the green revolution as the use of synthetic fertilizer became more widely available.

Now that scientists are aware of where the nitrous oxide is coming from limiting nitrous oxide emissions may be a step toward reducing other greenhouse gases.

“On a pound for pound basis, it is really worthwhile to figure how to limit our emissions of N2O and methane,” Boering said. “Limiting N2O emission can buy us a little more time in figuring out how to reduce CO2 emissions.”

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