The Nitrogen cycle plays a major part in the cycle of life on Earth. Nitrogen is an integral component for all living cells. With the increase of human activity the amount of nitrogen available has increased. Rather than being advantageous, this increase in activity and nitrogen availability is disrupting and helping to destroy parts of the Earths environment.
The Nitrogen Cycle Overview
Nitrogen is a key component in the atmosphere as well as genetic materials and organic molecules. While every living thing needs nitrogen to survive, it was not as prevalent in need as such elements as oxygen. When humans began to evolve to higher states of intelligence, this began to have an impact on the atmosphere and environment.
Gaseous nitrogen amounts are held fast by natural processes and are only a small part of what is available in the ecosystem. Nitrogen is found in fixed amounts in soil composed of rotted plants and animal remains and rotted plants that are decomposed by soil microbes.
Plants and animals take nitrogen from the air that has been bonded with to either hydrogen or oxygen to form a compound, which they can readily partake of. The nitrogen is sourced from lighting or nitrogen fixing organisms.
These organisms include algae and bacteria that live in the soil. Bacteria are the most important as they are used by higher plant life to manufacture enzymes to convert gaseous nitrogen to a form which is adapted by the plant life. Light also transforms the nitrogen in the atmosphere to nitrates, which then go into the soil.
Since the dawn of the industrial age, the increase of change to the nitrogen cycle has drastically increased. The ecosystem is being overloaded while the atmosphere is being depleted. Both are suffering the effects of pollution.
Increased dependence on fossil fuels, large-scale farming and use of heavy fertilizers has impacted on the soil, water and atmosphere. Pollutions dumped on the soil and in the sea and leaked into the air are having devastating effects not only in the areas where the pollution is taking place, but also in far-flung and widespread areas of the earth where pollution had never existed before.
Perhaps the greatest problem that can be associated with the impact on the atmosphere is the change in atmospheric chemistry. Trace nitrogen related gases such as nitrous oxide, nitric oxide and ammonia cause damage while both airborne and after they finally come to rest on the soil. As an example, nitrous oxide has longevity in the atmosphere and also has a contributory role in the enhancement of the greenhouse effect and a forerunner to acid rain and smog.
Human interference has played a part in the destruction of the atmosphere. Auto exhaust and fossil fuel burning is responsible for a large part of this contamination. Over fertilization by agricultural concerns has increased the rate of nitrous oxide being released into the air, resulting form the ammonium and nitrate in the soil being speed up.
Effects on the carbon cycle (Biosphere)
In a way, the abundance of agricultural lands and new techniques designed to increase use of the land, while on one hand feeding the world population, the other hand has seen the alteration of the carbon cycle in its relationship to our environment.
The enhanced abundance of plant material has substantially added to the amounts of nitrogen that has been deposited in the soil, particularly in high-density agriculture areas. This has resulted in more nitrogen being stored in the soil than is being released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Nitrogen saturation has resulted in the soil and plants being overloaded and no longer able to hold any nitrogen. This has led to spillage into lakes, streams, groundwater and the atmosphere. This has become evident in increased nitrate concentrations in water and damaging effects on forestation. In essence, this is a cascade effect, of one problem generating another with no end in sight.
Saturation has posed problematic in some areas while in other areas there has been little impact. Areas with high pollution content, such as Los Angeles, have impacted on the forests in the area. The European population centers have high outputs for pollutants and this has moved through the atmosphere and has contributed to the decomposition of the forests in Scandinavia.
Changes in nitrogen deposition is linked with such thinks as changes in patterns of land usage, climatic changes and the levels of carbon dioxide and ozone in the atmosphere.
Effects on Biodiversity (Lithosphere)
Nitrogen has always been in lesser quantities in most ecosystems, and nature has adapted to this in varying ways. The influence of added sources of nitrogen can cause cataclysmic changes in the environment and animal life in a biosphere.
Plant life that has been able to adapt to increased nitrogen levels has flourished, while the less adaptable species have dwindled away. Humans have contributed to the loss of this plant life by overuse of land and non-rotation of crops.
Over grazing of livestock on sensitive eco-environments and high use of industry have had negative impacts also. This has had a knock on effect of devastation throughout the environment and the true impact on all aspects of biodiversity has yet to be fully analyzed.
Effect on Hydrosphere (Aquatic Ecosystem)
The effect of nitrogen concentration in terrestrial waters has expanded as human beings have evolved. As humans became more mechanized, the levels of pollutants has increased, and this has adversely began affecting water supplies.
Again, this can be attributed to the increases in agricultural fertilization, the over usage of grazing lands, dumping of wastes on the land and in the rivers and sea, and air pollution.
High levels of nitrates have been detected in many primary drinking water lakes and reservoirs. This is harmful to humans, and infants are at the highest risk levels. The nitrates can cause changes in the blood and its oxygen distribution properties, leading to brain damage or death.
Nitric acid is contributing to the acidification of water sources. Acid rain, snow and fog have all added to this problem. While efforts are being made to decrease the volume of acid rain and its counterparts, it is still not enough. Because of the continuing cycle of poor management of human related activities, the cycle continues to deteriorate.
Efforts are being made to reduce emissions of fossil fuels by exploring the use of sustainable renewable energy sources such as wind, and cities are encouraging their inhabitants to use alternate forms of transport rather than their cars to lessen the impact on the environment.
Changes in agriculture such as crop rotation and natural types of fertilizers are being employed to curtail the negative bombardment to the soil and atmosphere.
Recycling is being encouraged as a way to curb dependence on landfills and dumping. Waste management is being targeted to prevent leaks and spillage into sensitive water environments to prevent pollution of drinking water and marine habitats.
New methods of faming, manufacturing and energy consumption are all trying to help stop the destruction of the most complex of all systems- our Earth.