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Nitrogen Cycle

Essential for the growth of plants and

Nitrogen fixation: Reduction of N into biologically
available form (NH4+ ). It is high energy process.
Nitrification: Oxidation of NH + into further oxidation
Denitrification: Reduction of NH + and NO back into
N2. Occur under anaerobic conditions and mostly in soil
Ammonification: Conversion of organic nitrogen into
NH4+ when plant or animal die. Done by saprotrophs

Disruption of cycle

Synthesis of fertilizers
Fossil fuel burning
Municipal waste
Forest fires


Fertilizers- Haber bach process

Nitrogenous fertilizers given as ammonium salts,
anhydrous or liquid ammonia, nitrate or urea
Nitrification- NH4+ (Ammonium) ions are converted
to NO3_ (Nitrate) ions by nitrifying bacteria, with H+
ions as byproduct. Thus leading to soil acidification
Heavy metals such as lead zinc and cadmium easily
mobilized in acidic soil
Acidification of soil results from Inorganic nitrogen
fertilizers and acid deposition resulting from urban and
industrial pollution.

Nitrate is highly soluble, easily percolate to groundwater.

Percolation depend upon the rock type. Slow in limestone
and fast in chalk and triassic standstones
NO3- can be leach from the soil, along with positively
charged alkaline minerals such as calcium and magnesium
High concentration of nitrate causes- methaemoglobina in
young children and formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines
in the human guts
Fertilizers should be applied in appropriate quantity. Use of
foliar fertilizers potentially ensures that the nitrogen reaches
the plant rather than the microorganisms of the soil.

Possible fates of excess fertilizer nitrogen

Form of Nitrogen

Possible Fate


Leaching into groundwater in wet areas.

Conversion to N2O/ N2 and loss to
atmosphere. Occasionally bound to soil

Ammonium /Ammonia

Often complexed with cation-binding

sites in soil. May be volatilized and lost to
atmosphere especially at high pH


Usually rapidly hydrolyzed in soil then

subject to same fates as

Source: Janet I. Sprent, The Ecology of the Nitrogen Cycle,

Cambridge University Press, New Year, 1988


Eutrophication arises from the

oversupply of nutrients, which induces
explosive growth of plants and algae
which, when such organisms die,
consume the oxygen in the body of
water, thereby creating the state of
Increase in BOD
Along with runoff from agriculture,
waste from municiplaities, and other
human-related activities increase the
flow of both inorganic nutrients and
organic substances into ecosystems.
Estuaries tend
nutrients are concentrated where runoff enters a confined channel.

Fossil fuel burning

NOx enter the atmosphere from anthropogenic

sources i.e. combustion of fossil fuels in both
stationary and mobile sources.
Nitrous oxide is green house gas, leads to global
Conc. of Nitrous Oxide grew about two times faster
from 1960 to 1999 than over any 40 year period of
two millennia before 1800 and have continued to
grow at the same rate to a 2011 concentration of 324

Atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxide over the last 10,000 years

(large panels) and since 1750 (inset panels). Measurements are shown
from ice cores (symbols with different colours for different studies) and
atmospheric samples (red lines).

Photochemical smog
Complex mixture of products formed from the
interaction of sunlight with major components of
automobile exhaust, nitric oxide and hydrocarbons.
Harmful effects:
Harmful to humans, animals, plants and the nature as a
Irritation in the eye
Inflammation in the tissues of lungs; giving rise to pain
in the chest
Other issues or illnesses such as cold and pneumonia
are also related to smog

Acid rain
Acid rain consists 70 sulphur dioxide and 30
nitrogen compounds giving rise to sulphuric and
nitric acids respectively
Acid rain causes
Acidification of lakes and streams
Damage of trees at high elevations and
sensitive forest soils
Accelerates the decay of building materials
and paints, statues, and sculptures

Forest Fires

With high-intensity wildfire, both organic and

inorganic nitrogen in the vegetation and the forest floor
material is released, both to the atmosphere and in the
form of oxidized mineral to the soil.

Waste slurries:
Organic nitrogen and ammonium can find their way
from animal slurries and municipal waste into rivers
and other waterways
Sheep manure is high in nitrogen and potash, while pig
manure is relatively low in both.


Bernhard, A. (2010) the nitrogen cycle: processes,

players and human impact. Nature education
knowledge 3 (10).25
E. P. Odum, G.W. Barrett; Fundamentals of
Ecology, 5e, 2005, p(143-149)
Janet I. Sprent, The Ecology of the Nitrogen Cycle,
Cambridge University Press, New Year, 1988