Reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere lasts approximately 110 years and has an impact on ozone production, acid rain, particle formation and growth, and deposition to soil and water which can damage agricultural productivity and harm ecosystem balances. While research on wet and dry deposition of nitrate (NO3) from fossil fuel combustion emissions of nitrous oxides (NOx) is abundant, research on ammonia (NH3) and ammonium (NH4) deposition is less common but continues to grow. Farming, and cattle farming in particular, are the largest sources of NH3 emissions. Emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) from beef cattle urine and feces are also important. Wet deposition of N2O in the form of precipitation contributes a smaller amount to overall emissions.
Nitrogen and All Its Friends
NH3 pollution is currently not regulated in the United States, despite the fact that intensive poultry units produce enough NH3 to be observed as far as 2.8 km upwind. Measuring NH3, nitric acid, and fine particle NH4 and NO3 will help scientists understand the impacts of nitrogen air pollution and how it moves across the Earth’s surface and through the atmosphere. Information on nitrogen emissions and transport through the atmosphere can also help track pollution sources and make enforcement possible.
Could Water Buffalo Save the Day?
Cows, highland cattle, and water buffalo graze reeds and grasses in the Vorpommersche Boddenlandschaft National Park along the Baltic Sea in Germany. This is not a natural habitat for the water buffalo. These grazers were introduced to the area as a coastal conservation technique because they consume unwanted reeds and stray from grasses that feed local birds. The roaming water buffalo herd probably produce less NH3 than an intensive poultry unit because they aren’t gathered in a tight space. However, the small amounts of total N2O produced by cattle can add up over time.
The usefulness of water buffalo as a conservation technique has been studied, but there is a need to understand their nitrogen gas emissions as well. This would be the perfect opportunity to estimate emissions from a sustainable alternative to more intensive feeding operations. Data might reveal that water buffalo are a great way to cut back unwanted reeds while also reducing nitrogen gas emissions, or it might reveal that water buffalo are no better than cows in terms of emissions. The location of this site in northern Germany would make it the ideal place to study gas emissions from agriculture without interference from other sources.
How It All Ties In
The chemistry of the atmosphere can and will change significantly as the world population and high protein food sources required to feed them grows. Information on nitrogen emissions will be helpful to people in many different fields, including chemistry, atmospheric science, biology, and applied physics. Nitrogen transport data can be used to model gas transport, diffusion, and deposition and help calculate nitrogen emissions from different agricultural sources. Environmental project managers can use emissions data to inform decisions on whether to embrace the conversion from highland cattle to water buffalo in Germany and other parts of the world. Data could also be used in reports geared towards policymakers to encourage monitoring of agricultural emissions.
Have you heard of this conservation technique of using different species to control vegetation? If you were an environmental manager, what information would you need to make decisions about conservation projects? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!