Main content area

Stream Nitrate Responds Rapidly to Decreasing Nitrate Deposition

Kothawala, Dolly N., Watmough, Shaun A., Futter, Martyn N., Zhang, Leiming, Dillon, Peter J.
Ecosystems 2011 v.14 no.2 pp. 274-286
acidification, dissolved inorganic nitrogen, drought, ecosystems, emissions, eutrophication, issues and policy, nitrates, nitrogen oxides, streams, surface water, watersheds, wetlands, Europe, Ontario
Ecosystem acidification and eutrophication resulting from increased deposition of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) are issues of increasing global concern. Consequently, costly policy decisions are being implemented to decrease nitrogen oxide (NO x ) emissions. Although declining DIN deposition along with rapid declines of DIN in surface waters have been reported in parts of Europe, the same observation is just emerging in North America. Here we find a significant decline in bulk deposition NO₃ ⁻ during the later part of a 28-year record in southcentral Ontario, Canada. Despite high N retention and substantial inter-annual variability in the long-term record due to periods of drought, we find significant declines in annual NO₃ ⁻ concentrations and export at six out of 11 streams that drain upland-dominated catchments. In contrast, five streams draining primarily wetland-dominated catchments with lower levels of NO₃ ⁻ show no decreasing trend in NO₃ ⁻ concentration or export. The rapid response in stream NO₃ ⁻ to declining atmospheric inputs was observed at sites with historically moderate inputs of DIN (~870 mg m⁻² y⁻¹) in bulk deposition. Topographic features such as slope, and related catchment features including wetland cover, appear to influence which catchments will respond positively to declining DIN deposition. These findings force us to revise our original conceptualization of the N saturation status of these catchments.