More than just CO2 – The Impact of the N2 Footprint.

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia |

As a student immersed in biological and environmental studies, one of the keystone messages consistently made clear to me is that carbon dioxide concentrations circulating between the atmosphere, land, and hydrosphere are drastically spiking as a result of human activity. 

When you think about it, the release of CO2 is depicted as a central platform around which the enhancing greenhouse effect and global warming is rotating.

What we often forget is the magnitude at which other gases, such as sulfur dioxides, methane and—quite prominently—nitrous oxides, are created as well.  For a gas which naturally comprises 78% of the air we breathe, the polluting effects of nitrogen are rarely given attention in comparison to the more common CO2 greenhouse gas.  Nitrous oxide, however, is a regular byproduct of meat and grain production with a greenhouse effect 300 times more potent than CO2.    

To give you the general implication of toxic nitrogen compounds, I ask you to consider the daily routines in which every human is responsible to contributing this potent substance into the Earth’s system.  As is the case with most greenhouse gases, the combustion of fossil fuels adds nitrogen to the environment.  This translates to nitrous oxide output around the clock at the manufacturing plants who produce all the material goods we use on a daily basis, as well as the from the exhaust of our vehicles. 

At a value of almost three quarters of nitrous oxide production, agricultural practices dominate the charts when it comes to contributors of excess nitrogen to natural ecosystems.  Although nitrogen is essential to plant life, the widespread use of nitrogen-based fertilizers to enhance crop production ends with runoff from farms, adding itself unnecessarily to the natural environment.

You may be skeptical of my approach on this issue, with the thought that some environmental problems must be sacrificed in order for the human population to continue progressing.  After all, daily food consumption is a must, as well as the need for transportation and consumerism.  Anthropogenic nitrogen input, as with carbon, cannot be eliminated, but is resolved through not abusing how much we take from our Earth.

In light of the overlooked issue of nitrogen contamination, the University of Virginia has recently developed a creative tool to measure the nitrogen dilemma: A Nitrogen Footprint Calculator.  Created by environmental scientists of the university, it takes into account food consumption, housing, transportation, and goods and services that all influence the production of nitrogen ultimately running off into the oceans.

The result?  When excessive nitrogen accumulates in oceans (more majorly a coastal occurrence, as depicted along the Gulf of Mexico above), algal blooms form, which are toxic masses of phytoplankton that deplete bodies of water of their nutrients, creating dead zones.  These regions lack the oxygen required by fish and shellfish to survive, directly affecting our food sources.  Overloads of nitrogen are also responsible for acid rain, and an enhanced greenhouse effect, which assist in further biodiversity loss and ozone depletion in the stratosphere.

This nitrogen footprint calculator is intended to be an instrumental research tool issued to farmers and primary nitrogen producers as a way of tracking nitrogen emissions in order to slow down its environmental impact. 

Take the time to see how your own lifestyle is associated with the nitrogen surplus:

The reduction of nitrogen pollution is made possible by raising awareness on the matter and connecting consumers, producers and policymakers.  I can guarantee you fall into at least one of those categories.