Shcherbak, I., N. Millar, and G. P. Robertson. 2014. Global metaanalysis of the nonlinear response of soil nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions to fertilizer nitrogen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111:9199-9204.
Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) that also depletes stratospheric ozone. Nitrogen (N) fertilizer rate is the best single predictor of N2O emissions from agricultural soils, which are responsible for ∼50% of the total global anthropogenic flux, but it is a relatively imprecise estimator. Accumulating evidence suggests that the emission response to increasing N input is exponential rather than linear, as assumed by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change methodologies. We performed a metaanalysis to test the generalizability of this pattern. From 78 published studies (233 site-years) with at least three N-input levels, we calculated N2O emission factors (EFs) for each nonzero input level as a percentage of N input converted to N2O emissions. We found that the N2O response to N inputs grew significantly faster than linear for synthetic fertilizers and for most crop types. N-fixing crops had a higher rate of change in EF (ΔEF) than others. A higher ΔEF was also evident in soils with carbon >1.5% and soils with pH <7, and where fertilizer was applied only once annually. Our results suggest a general trend of exponentially increasing N2O emissions as N inputs increase to exceed crop needs. Use of this knowledge in GHG inventories should improve assessments of fertilizer-derived N2O emissions, help address disparities in the global N2O budget, and refine the accuracy of N2O mitigation protocols. In low-input systems typical of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, modest N additions will have little impact on estimated N2O emissions, whereas equivalent additions (or reductions) in excessively fertilized systems will have a disproportionately major impact.
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