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Globally prevalent land nitrogen memory amplifies water pollution following drought years

January 11, 2021

Enhanced riverine delivery of terrestrial nitrogen (N) has polluted many freshwater and coastal ecosystems, degrading drinking water and marine resources. An emerging view suggests a contribution of land N memory effects—impacts of antecedent dry conditions on land N accumulation that disproportionately increase subsequent river N loads. To date, however, such effects have only been explored for several relatively small rivers covering a few episodes. Here we introduce an index for quantifying land N memory effects and assess their prevalence using regional observations and global terrestrial-freshwater ecosystem model outputs. Model analyses imply that land N memory effects are globally prevalent but vary widely in strength. Strong effects reflect large soil dissolved inorganic N (DIN) surpluses by the end of dry years. During the subsequent wetter years, the surpluses are augmented by soil net mineralization pulses, which outpace plant uptake and soil denitrification, resulting in disproportionately increased soil leaching and eventual river loads. These mechanisms are most prominent in areas with high hydroclimate variability, warm climates, and ecosystem disturbances. In 48 of the 118 basins analyzed, strong memory effects produce 43% (21%–88%) higher DIN loads following drought years than following average years. Such a marked influence supports close consideration of prevalent land N memory effects in water-pollution management efforts.

Publication Year 2021
Title Globally prevalent land nitrogen memory amplifies water pollution following drought years
DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/abd1a0
Authors Minjin Lee, Charles A. Stock, Elena Shevliakova, Sergey Malyshev, Paul C. D. Milly
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Research Letters
Index ID 70236104
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division