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21st-century rise in anthropogenic nitrogen deposition on a remote coral reef

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Science  19 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6339, pp. 749-752
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal3869

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From air to shining sea

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for phytoplankton growth. Nitrogen is primarily supplied to the surface ocean by mixing from below. However, as fertilizer use and combustion of fossil fuels rise, the atmosphere is expected to become an increasingly important source. Ren et al. measured nitrogen isotopes in organic matter from a South China Sea coral (see the Perspective by Boyle). Their findings suggest that atmospheric deposition of anthropogenic nitrogen began right at the end of the 20th century. This pathway now supplies nearly one quarter of the annual nitrogen input to the surface ocean in this region.

Science, this issue p. 749; see also p. 700

Abstract

With the rapid rise in pollution-associated nitrogen inputs to the western Pacific, it has been suggested that even the open ocean has been affected. In a coral core from Dongsha Atoll, a remote coral reef ecosystem, we observe a decline in the 15N/14N of coral skeleton–bound organic matter, which signals increased deposition of anthropogenic atmospheric N on the open ocean and its incorporation into plankton and, in turn, the atoll corals. The first clear change occurred just before 2000 CE, decades later than predicted by other work. The amplitude of change suggests that, by 2010, anthropogenic atmospheric N deposition represented 20 ± 5% of the annual N input to the surface ocean in this region, which appears to be at the lower end of other estimates.

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