Ocean cycling of nitrous oxide is more intense than thought, emissions are increasing

June 5, 2015 by David L. Chandler
Researchers in the eastern tropical North Pacific used the sampling device shown here to gather water samples from various depths, at three different sampling locations. Credit: Clara Fuchsman

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a potent greenhouse gas that can contribute to climate change and damage the ozone layer. But its cycling in and out of ocean waters has remained poorly understood, making it difficult to predict how the gas might impact the climate.

Now new research by MIT postdoc Andrew Babbin and three others has provided a way to quantify this cycle, in which N2O—commonly known as laughing gas—is rapidly formed and destroyed in oxygen-poor layers of seawater, and some of the gas is released into the air. The findings, based on computer analysis and sampling of ocean waters from different depths, are presented this week in the journal Science, and show that this source of atmospheric has been drastically underestimated.

Babbin, a postdoc in MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the study's lead author, says that while nitrogen and its compounds are crucial to life, it has been difficult to accurately measure the processes by which these compounds cycle through the land, air, and water.

"There have been a lot of estimates on what the sources and sinks are, both on land and in the ocean," Babbin says. But the new measurements, he adds, show that in parts of the ocean, those estimates were off by at least a factor of 10.

It turns out that a particular zone of the ocean—a boundary between oxygen-rich surface waters and oxygen-free, or "anoxic," deep waters—plays a key role in nitrogen cycling. This "suboxic" zone experiences an imbalance between bacterial processes that create N2O and those that break it down—and the excess of N2O created by this imbalance is given off to the atmosphere.

Ocean nitrification begins with nitrogen entering the sea as runoff from agricultural fertilizers and other sources. Marine microbes take in nitrogen compounds, such as ammonia, and chemically modify them, releasing N2O as a byproduct. Other bacteria carry out denitrification, a process that breaks down through steps that ultimately lead to —but which can also release some N2O.

Most of the time, these processes balance out. "The denitrifying bacteria that produce N2O also consume it, and it was thought that these two processes are pretty tightly coupled," Babbin says. But that's not the case in the suboxic layer, resulting in leftover N2O that leaks away to the surface.

It had been known that this release of nitrogen gas was oxygen-sensitive, with higher concentrations inhibiting the process, but the level needed to allow or inhibit production of nitrogen was not known. Further, it was assumed that there was some key level at which the whole process turned on or off, Babbin says. But the new research shows that's not the case: There is an intermediate concentration where the two parts of the process are decoupled, with one step happening much more rapidly than the other.

"It turns out that with a little bit of decoupling—it doesn't have to be much—there can be large amounts of N2O production," Babbin says. "Overall rates of denitrification are very, very fast relative to rates of nitrification." Even a small imbalance, over time and over large areas, can be significant, he adds.

The research, which Babbin carried out as part of his doctoral thesis work at Princeton University, involved taking water samples from various depths at three different locations in the eastern tropical North Pacific, and then measuring these samples in the lab to determine their denitrification rates. The sampling region is one of three known to have extensive suboxic zones, he says, along with the eastern tropical South Pacific and the Arabian Sea.

Babbin's measurements demonstrate that production of N2O in just these three small regions could equal the total worldwide marine production that had been estimated in climate models, including the most recent International Panel on Climate Change report: some 4 million metric tons of N2O per year. While that amount is dwarfed by carbon dioxide production, N2O is 300 times more potent as a .

Since ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons were banned by international agreement in 1987, N2O is now a leading remaining ozone-destroying compound. Anoxic regions of the ocean are expected to increase significantly in size, thus also expanding suboxic zones and their N2O production—which could amplify .

"These findings are highly significant," says James Galloway, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia who was not involved in this research, "as they indicate that now the oceans can be expected to increase their N2O emissions, just as continents are expected to, due to agriculture."

Explore further: Aquatic 'dead zones' contributing to climate change

More information: "Rapid nitrous oxide cycling in the suboxic ocean." Science 5 June 2015: DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa8380

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11 comments

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Forestgnome
1.4 / 5 (10) Jun 05, 2015
"Ocean nitrification begins with nitrogen entering the sea as runoff from agricultural fertilizers and other sources". Notice how the importance of fertilizers is pumped up, while almost dismissing "other sources". If fertilizer was the primary cause of nitrogen compounds in the ocean, there wouldn't have been bacteria that had evolved to metabolize it.
denglish
1.9 / 5 (13) Jun 05, 2015
Its going to be very difficult to tax the ocean for contributing to green house gases.

Perhaps we should tax people that laugh.
gkam
3.5 / 5 (11) Jun 05, 2015
As said in the article, it is a result of anoxic water. That is another symptom of AGW.

Perhaps some folk think it is funny?
denglish
1.8 / 5 (9) Jun 05, 2015
As said in the article, it is a result of anoxic water. That is another symptom of AGW.

Perhaps some folk think it is funny?


Anoxic conditions result from several factors; for example, stagnation conditions, density stratification,[7] inputs of organic material, and strong thermoclines. Examples of which are fjords (where shallow sills at their entrance prevent circulation) and deep ocean western boundaries where circulation is especially low while production at upper levels is exceptionally high. The bacterial production of sulfide starts in the sediments, where the bacteria find suitable substrates, and then expands into the water column.

http://en.wikiped..._effects
gkam
3.2 / 5 (11) Jun 05, 2015
Cutting and pasting from wiki is not a response, if you are ignorant of the meanings.

What you did was to explain why it some of it happens. Thanks for reinforcing the message.
robert_durieux
not rated yet Jun 05, 2015
Its going to be very difficult to tax the ocean for contributing to green house gases.

Perhaps we should tax people that laugh.


Won't work. People will stop laughing, and ocean will carry on emitting gas. The hilarious kind.

And please, don't suggest it's because ocean doesn't emit enough N2O that your system doesn't work.
denglish
2.3 / 5 (6) Jun 05, 2015
Cutting and pasting from wiki is not a response, if you are ignorant of the meanings.


Let me help you then:

Stagnation Condition: The thermodynamic state that would exist if a flow were brought to rest isentropically.

Density Stratification: When water masses with different properties - salinity (halocline), oxygenation (chemocline), density (pycnocline), temperature (thermocline) - form layers that act as barriers to water mixing.

Inputs of Organic Material: Organic matter (or organic material, natural organic matter, NOM) is matter composed of organic compounds that has come from the remains of organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products in the environment.

Thermoclines: The thermocline is the transition layer between the mixed layer at the surface and the deep water layer. The definitions of these layers are based on temperature.

Clearly, saying that anoxic water is a symptom of AGW without allowing for other factors is disingenuous.
gkam
2.1 / 5 (7) Jun 05, 2015
We know the definitions. We also know what exacerbates and causes them, which you are trying to dodge.
denglish
2.6 / 5 (5) Jun 05, 2015
We know the definitions. We also know what exacerbates and causes them, which you are trying to dodge.

If I was dodging, why would I include thermocines?
gkam
2.7 / 5 (7) Jun 05, 2015
Why separate out thermoclines? Do you think they have dramatic effects only from AGW? They have always been here.

Here is the problem:

"Ocean nitrification begins with nitrogen entering the sea as runoff from agricultural fertilizers and other sources. Marine microbes take in nitrogen compounds, such as ammonia, and chemically modify them, releasing N2O as a byproduct."
richard_f_cronin
1 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2015
Fertilizer runoff and it's effects on shallow inland waterways are a genuine concern. The idea that this runoff affects the ocean waters is ridiculous. First we have a "war" on Chlorine, then a "war" on Carbon, now a "war" on Nitrogen. The myth that the Montreal Protocol "stops" black market production of fluor-chloro-carbons is ludicrous. All signatories report their own numbers and nobody audits. Russia, China, India, and Brazil all sell thru Third World nations under false documents. After losing in the court of simple-minded public opinion, even DuPont signed onto the 1978 Montreal Protocol, knowing that their patents on Freon @R expired in 1979. Dr. Gordon Gribble, Univ. of New Hampshire, published in 1996 that there were at least 1500 known natural chloro-carbons (remember chlorophyl ? ). The massive amount of chlor-hydrocarbons emitted from weathering biomass dwarfs any human sources. The ozone "hole" diminishes every Spring when UV-B radiation causing photodissociation returns

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