Factoring stream turbulence into global assessments of nitrogen pollution

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Science  16 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6381, pp. 1266-1269
DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8074

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Stream physics set the limits

A combination of physical transport processes and biologically mediated reactions in streams and their sediments removes dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) from the water. Although stream chemistry and biology have been considered the dominant controls on how quickly DIN is removed, Grant et al. show that physics is what sets the limits on removal rates of nitrate (a component of DIN). Residence time in the hyporheic zone (the region below the sediment surface where groundwater and surface water mix) determines the maximum rate at which nitrate can be removed from stream water. Nevertheless, at local scales, chemistry and biology modify how closely to that maximum rate removal occurs.

Science, this issue p. 1266


The discharge of excess nitrogen to streams and rivers poses an existential threat to both humans and ecosystems. A seminal study of headwater streams across the United States concluded that in-stream removal of nitrate is controlled primarily by stream chemistry and biology. Reanalysis of these data reveals that stream turbulence (in particular, turbulent mass transfer across the concentration boundary layer) imposes a previously unrecognized upper limit on the rate at which nitrate is removed from streams. The upper limit closely approximates measured nitrate removal rates in streams with low concentrations of this pollutant, a discovery that should inform stream restoration designs and efforts to assess the effects of nitrogen pollution on receiving water quality and the global nitrogen cycle.

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