In a new magazine based on Martha’s Vineyard, MBL Ecosystems Center Director Anne Giblin explains the negative impacts of excess nitrogen in coastal environments.
By Leslie Garrett
There was a time when this Canadian was forced by her high school chemistry teacher to memorize the entire periodic table of elements. Nitrogen was easy. It came early, at No. 7. It was the most abundant element on Earth, our teacher told us, crucial to life, found in soils and plants, in our water, in our air. And, some classmate snickered and said under his breath, in our pee.
At that point in the early 1980s, there was no U.N. International Nitrogen Management System to tackle the problem of global nitrogen pollution. That wouldn’t happen until December 2016. While a very few scientists began sounding the alarm about the impact of nitrogen on coastal water systems in the early 20th century, and the chorus grew in size and volume in the ’80s and ’90s, according to a scientific paper published in 2006, most scientists were debating whether phosphorus or carbon was the larger culprit. In the meantime, the world continued to blithely douse farmland with fertilizers made largely of nitrogen, and flush our urine, with its 10 percent nitrogen, into ponds and rivers and lakes and oceans.