Anthropogenic nitrogen sources and relationships to riverine nitrogen export in the northeastern U.S.A.

Elizabeth W. Boyer, Christine L. Goodale, Norbert A. Jaworski, Robert W. Howarth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

560 Scopus citations


Human activities have greatly altered the nitrogen (N) cycle, accelerating the rate of N fixation in landscapes and delivery of N to water bodies. To examine relationships between anthropogenic N inputs and riverine N export, we constructed budgets describing N inputs and losses for 16 catchments, which encompass a range of climatic variability and are major drainages to the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean along a latitudinal profile from Maine to Virginia. Using data from the early 1990's, we quantified inputs of N to each catchment from atmospheric deposition, application of nitrogenous fertilizers, biological nitrogen fixation, and import of N in agricultural products (food and feed). We compared these inputs with N losses from the system in riverine export. The importance of the relative sources varies widely by catchment and is related to land use. Net atmospheric deposition was the largest N source (>60%) to the forested basins of northern New England (e.g. Penobscot and Kennebec); net import of N in food was the largest source of N to the more populated regions of southern New England (e.g. Charles & Blackstone); and agricultural inputs were the dominant N sources in the Mid-Atlantic region (e.g. Schuylkill & Potomac). Over the combined area of the catchments, net atmospheric deposition was the largest single source input (31%), followed by net imports of N in food and feed (25%), fixation in agricultural lands (24%), fertilizer use (15%), and fixation in forests (5%). The combined effect of fertilizer use, fixation in crop lands, and animal feed imports makes agriculture the largest overall source of N. Riverine export of N is well correlated with N inputs, but it accounts for only a fraction (25%) of the total N inputs. This work provides an understanding of the sources of N in landscapes, and highlights how human activities impact N cycling in the northeast region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)137-169
Number of pages33
StatePublished - 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


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