Environment of Earth

September 23, 2009


Filed under: Matter cycling — gargpk @ 4:51 pm

Nitrogen is primarily exchanged between atmosphere, biosphere and soil. Following Table-1 shows the estimated total nitrogen stored in the atmosphere and surface locations on a global scale.

Nitrogen in hydrosphere

In comparison to biosphere or atmosphere, very little nitrogen is present in oceans and continental surface waters. Over 95% of nitrogen stored in oceans is present in inactive molecular form. Only nitrate (about 2.5% of total oceanic nitrogen) and organic matter (about 1.5% of total oceanic nitrogen) have some active role. Oceanic nitrogen comes through river runoff from continents and wet and dry deposition from atmosphere. Its loss occurs through deposition to sediments in the bottom of oceans and through release to atmosphere in areas of biological activity. Nitrogen content in ocean water can vary spatially; for example, ammonia in surface oceanic waters varies between 0.05 to 2.0 mmol m-3 with smallest concentrations in the open oceans where biological activity is lowest. The amount of nitrogen released from oceans to the atmosphere (about 0.5 Tg Y-1) is quite low in comparison to that from other sources.

Table-1. Nitrogen storage in various components of global environment.


Nitrogen storage

in Tg (1012 g)


2 to 6 x 106


85 x 103



10 x 103


3.8 x 103

Surface litter

1.5 x 103

marine biomass




Human beings


Nitrogen in rocks

The amount of nitrogen stored in lithosphere is much greater than the amounts stored in all other locations combined together. In lithosphere, most of the nitrogen is stored in primary igneous rocks and thus is not available to ecosystem. Weathering and other natural processes release only a very small fraction (<<1%) of this stored nitrogen into global ecosystem.

Nitrogen in soil and biosphere

Major active zone of nitrogen use and transfer occurs in the soil and biosphere on continents with very minor activity occurring in aquatic ecosystems. Inactive N2 of atmosphere is converted to form available to ecosystem through the process of nitrogen fixation, which mainly involves bacterial activities (though some nitrogen fixation also occurs during atmospheric lightening). Fixed nitrogen is made available first to plants in the ecosystem through mineralization to ammonia or through oxidation of reduced ammonia to nitrate (NO3-). This process termed nitrification occurs under aerobic conditions. The oxidized nitrogen in soil is returned to atmosphere through the process termed denitrification under anaerobic conditions.

Nitrogen content of soil determines the nitrogen availability to biosphere and various soil types differ in their nitrogen content. Most of the soils contain about 0.05% to 0.2% nitrogen by weight though richest organic soils may contain upto 0.5% of total mass as nitrogen. During rains, some of the soil nitrogen is leached by runoff or infiltration and reaches groundwater or river water to be transported elsewhere.

Nitrogen entering the plants mainly as nitrate or ammonium is assimilated there into a variety of organic nitrogenous compounds, mainly the proteins and amino acids which are passed on from plants to animals as food. Nitrogen then traverses to different trophic levels in the ecosystem as different animals eat each other. Finally, nitrogen is returned back to soil or atmosphere from the biosphere after death and decay of plants and animals. In the ecosystem, aerobic processes form NO2 also while anaerobic processes produce NO, N2O and N2. Most of these products is released to atmosphere.

All the processes and pathways involved with nitrogen cycle depend on the environmental conditions such as soil pH, water content, soil type etc. Temperature is crucial factor in nitrogen cycle because biological activity is highly sensitive to temperature.

Though nitrogen fixation is the natural source of biospheric nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizers added to soil and surface deposition of nitrogenous materials that are emitted into atmosphere by human activities have also become important inputs to biospheric nitrogen.

Nitrogen in atmosphere

Nitrogenous species important in global nitrogen cycle found in atmosphere are:

1. Molecular nitrogen: The N2 gas constitutes about 79% of air by volume and it provides the main source of nitrogen to biosphere through nitrogen fixation as discussed above.

2. Ammonia and ammonium: Ammonia is very important component of nitrogen cycle as it is the only water-soluble gaseous nitrogen species. It can directly act as plant nutrient being converted to ammonium (NH4+) which forms the atmospheric nitrogen aerosol component. About 54 Tg nitrogen is emitted to atmosphere per year and ammonia released from animal urea makes up about half of this. Nitrogen inputs through biomass burning depend on the nitrogen content of the biomass which differs in different ecosystems. Average nitrogen content of tropical forest wood is 0.45%, of tropical litter is 0.85%, of coniferous and deciduous forest wood is 0.32%, of fuel wood is 0.2% and of tropical grasses is 0.2% to 0.6%. Other minor sources include coal combustion, human excreta and fertilizers.

It is difficult to establish the global representative concentrations of ammonia and ammonium. Ammonia concentration is lowest over remote oceans (about 0.1 ppbv); while in continental background air it is 6-10 ppbv. The ammonia concentrations are higher in summers than in winters and during daytime than in night due to higher temperatures influencing the activities of soil-based microbial sources. The lifetime of ammonia is only about 6 days and so it is rapidly converted to ammonium, which is the major component of two most prevalent atmospheric aerosols, ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate. Concentrations of both these aerosols and the gas decrease exponentially with altitude. Major sink of these aerosols is wet and dry deposition that removes about 49 Tg of nitrogen per year from atmosphere.

3. Nitrous oxides: Apart from N2, nitrous oxide (N2O) is the other inert gas in the atmosphere. Its lifetime is about 179 years and its major sink is photochemical reactions in stratosphere. It is also a greenhouse gas. Major sources of N2O emission are soil and oceans through microbial processes. Highest concentrations of the gas over oceans occur in areas where strong upwelling brings deep-water nutrients to the surface waters. Emissions due to human activities are adding about 8% of the natural input. N2O emissions increase with higher temperature and moisture and, therefore, reach a daily maximum around noon and seasonal maximum in summers. Emissions can be greatly increased on a local scale by irrigation practices. The gas shows very little variation in global distribution due to its long lifetime and major natural sources. Depending on the photochemical activity, the concentration of gas decreases slightly with altitude in the troposphere.

4. Nitrogen oxide species: NO and NO2 are major part of a series of highly active primary and secondary compounds (including HCN and N2O5). Primary emission occurs mainly of NO which is rapidly converted to NO2, which thus becomes dominant in the atmosphere. Both these are quite short-lived species and are rapidly oxidized to nitrate aerosol or sulfuric acid. Both the gases are crucial in tropospheric and stratospheric ozone chemistry and in the chemistry of photochemical smog.

NO and NO2 are strongly influenced by anthropogenic emissions. Over 60% of nitrogen oxides come from combustion of fossil fuels and biomass. The amount of gases released from fossil-fuel combustion depends on the temperature of combustion process and nitrogen content of the fuel. Nitrogen content of coal is 1-2%, of crude oil is <1% and of natural gas is 5-10%. Concentrations of nitrogen oxides show high spatial variability during their short lifetime indicating that local and regional sources are highly important to their global budget. Natural sources of these oxides are soil and thermal dissociation of atmospheric N2 during lightening. Global emission of nitrogen oxides is about 50 Tg Y-1, which forms about 33% of total nitrogen, input into the atmosphere. About 43 Tg nitrogen is removed from atmosphere per year. This removal involves almost entirely the wet and dry deposition with a very small quantity lost to photochemical reactions. Concentrations of nitrogen oxides in clean ocean air in the troposphere are <100 pptv. Concentrations in rural air over the continents are 200-300 ppbv and in air influenced by human activities may be >10 ppbv reaching upto 500 ppbv in urban air. Highest concentrations are found in Northern Hemisphere around 400 N latitude where major anthropogenic sources of these oxides are located. Concentrations rapidly decrease with altitude to a background value of 10 pptv in the upper troposphere. Higher concentrations occur in winters, particularly in the mid-latitude areas under urban influence since temperature inversions are more prevalent and photochemical activity is at a minimum.

Table-2. Indicative characteristics of major atmospheric nitrogen compounds.


Major sources



(Tg Y-1)

Background concentration







soils, biomass burning


0.1 ppbv

>6.0 ppbv

6 days

Conversion to NH4


Conversion from NH3


0.05 g m-3

>1.5 g m-3

5 days

Wet & dry deposition


Secondarily from NOx


0.5 g m-3

>10.0 g m-3

5 days

Wet & dry deposition




310 ppbv


170 days

Strato-spheric photo-chemistry


Fossil fuels, lightening, biomass burning, intercons-versions


<100 pptv

100 pptv

<2 days

Oxidation to HNO3 & NO3-, photo-dissociation

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