Atmospheric nitrogen deposition in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: A history of change

Douglas A. Burns, Gopal Bhatt, Lewis C. Linker, Jesse O. Bash, Paul D. Capel, Gary W. Shenk

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9 Scopus citations


The Chesapeake Bay watershed has been the focus of pioneering studies of the role of atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition as a nutrient source and driver of estuarine trophic status. Here, we review the history and evolution of scientific investigations of the role of atmospheric N deposition, examine trends from wet and dry deposition networks, and present century-long (1950–2050) atmospheric N deposition estimates. Early investigations demonstrated the importance of atmospheric deposition as an N source to the Bay, providing 25%–40% among all major N sources. These early studies led to the unprecedented inclusion of targeted decreases in atmospheric N deposition as part of the multi-stakeholder effort to reduce N loads to the Bay. Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and deposition of wet nitrate, oxidized dry N, and dry ammonium (NH4+) sharply and synchronously declined by 60%–73% during 1995–2019. These decreases largely resulted from implementation of Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which began in 1995. Wet NH4+ deposition shows no significant trend during this period. The century-long atmospheric N deposition estimates indicate an increase in total atmospheric N deposition in the Chesapeake watershed from 1950 to a peak of ~15 kg N/ha/yr in 1979, trailed by a slight decline of <10% through the mid-1990s, and followed by a sharp decline of about 40% thereafter through 2019. An additional 21% decline in atmospheric N deposition is projected from 2015 to 2050. A comparison of the Potomac River and James River watersheds indicates higher atmospheric N deposition in the Potomac, likely resulting from greater emissions from higher proportions of agricultural and urban land in this basin. Atmospheric N deposition rose from 30% among all N sources to the Chesapeake Bay watershed in 1950 to a peak of 40% in 1973, and a decline to 28% by 2015. These data highlight the important role of atmospheric N deposition in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and present a potential opportunity for decreases in deposition to contribute to further reducing N loads and improving the trophic status of tidal waters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number118277
JournalAtmospheric Environment
StatePublished - Apr 15 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Atmospheric Science


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