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Nitrogen isotopes indicate vehicle emissions and biomass burning dominate ambient ammonia across Colorado's Front Range urban corridor

November 4, 2022

Urban ammonia (NH3) emissions contribute to poor local air quality and can be transported to rural landscapes, impacting sensitive ecosystems. The Colorado Front Range urban corridor encompasses the Denver Metropolitan Area, rural farmland/rangeland and montane forest between the city and the Rocky Mountains. Reactive nitrogen emissions from the corridor are partly responsible for increased N deposition to the wildland-urban interface (WUI) in this region. To determine the significance of individual NH3 sources to WUI ecosystems, we measured the concentration and isotopic composition (δ15N–NH3) of ambient NH3(g) from April to October 2018 across a five-site urban to rural gradient in the corridor. The urban sites had higher NH3 concentrations and δ15N–NH3 values than the rural/suburban sites. Based on isotope mixing models, NH3 emission source contributions for all sites were fertilizer (12 ± 5.7%), livestock waste (18 ± 12%), vehicles (37 ± 23%), and biomass burning (34 ± 20%). Vehicle contributions were consistent across all months with an average of 35% and summer months showed a peak in biomass burning contributions (40%). As wildfires are projected to increase due to climate change, we stress a need for constraints on the isotopic signature of NH3 emitted from wildfires. Vehicle emissions contributed the greatest amount of NH3 (40%) at the urban sites while rural/suburban sites had higher agricultural contributions (41%). Had 2018 not had an anomalously high wildfire season, 46% and 60% of the NH3 would have been attributed to vehicle emissions at the WUI site and urban sites, respectively. NH3 emissions have historically been ascribed to agricultural activities but these findings illustrate the universal significance of vehicle emissions and the potential for sustained wildfire activity to be a primary contributor to NH3. Air quality (e.g., particulate matter) and nitrogen deposition reduction plans may benefit by including management practices that address vehicle NH3 emissions.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2023
Title Nitrogen isotopes indicate vehicle emissions and biomass burning dominate ambient ammonia across Colorado's Front Range urban corridor
DOI 10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120537
Authors J. David Felix, Alexander Berner, Gregory Wetherbee, Sheila F. Murphy, Ruth C. Heindel
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Pollution
Index ID 70238423
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Observing Systems Division