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Nitrogen pollution crisis

More and more nitrogen keeps pouring into waterways, unleashing algal blooms and creating dead zones. To prevent the problem from worsening, scientists warn, the world must drastically cut back on synthetic fertilizers and double the efficiency of the nitrogen used on farms.

By Fred Pearce for Yale Environment 360

The world is using nitrogen fertilizer less and less efficiently. A greater proportion than ever before is washing into rivers and oceans. An environmental catastrophe looms, nitrogen scientists say, and the world urgently needs to develop strategies to prevent it.

Photo: NOAA

Post-war physicists fearing nuclear apocalypse came up with the Doomsday Clock. In the 1980s, biologists contemplating ecological meltdown began talking about “biodiversity” loss as a way to tag and measure the crisis. Soon after, climate scientists recast concern over global warming with a warning that within a century it would lead to temperatures greater than any in human history.

Now, it is nitrogen’s turn.

Last month, in a seminar room at New York University, a score of nitrogen experts from around the world began drawing up scenarios of what a future nitrogen-soaked planet might look like – and to devise simple metrics for encouraging a global effort to head off disaster.

They met as part of the International Nitrogen Management System, a five-year, $60-million research project from the UN Environment Programme and the Global Environment Facility, that is intended, says its chief Mark Sutton, as nitrogen’s equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The bottom line, many there concluded, was that we must halve the amount of nitrogen we dump into the environment by mid-century or our ecosystems will face epidemics of toxic tides, lifeless rivers, and dead oceans. And that to do that will require, among other things, almost doubling the efficiency of nitrogen use on the world’s farms.

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