EGU21-14526, updated on 04 Mar 2021
EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Assessing Nitrogen Legacies in Western Europe

Andreas Musolff1, Sophie Ehrhardt1, Rémi Dupas2, Rohini Kumar3, Pia Ebeling1, and Jan H. Fleckenstein1,4
Andreas Musolff et al.
  • 1UFZ - Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Hydrogeology, Leipzig, Germany
  • 2UMR SAS, INRAE, Institut Agro, 35000 Rennes, France
  • 3UFZ - Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Computational Hydrosystem, Leipzig, Germany
  • 4Bayreuth Centre of Ecology and Environmental Research (BayCEER), University of Bayreuth, Germany

Intensive agricultural land use have introduced vast quantities of nutrients such as reactive nitrogen (N) to soils and subsequently to groundwater and surface waters. High nitrate concentrations are still a pressing issue for drinking water safety and aquatic ecosystem health e.g. in Europe, although fertilizer inputs have been significantly lowered in the last decades. This is partly due to a slow response of riverine nitrate concentrations to changes in nitrogen inputs attributed to N legacies in catchments. N can be stored organically bound as a biogeochemical legacy in soils or can be slowly transported as nitrate in groundwater forming a hydrologic legacy. Legacy can thus lead to a net retention of N in catchments and to substantial time lags in the response to input changes. Here, we systematically explore legacy effects over a wide range of catchment in the Western European countries France and Germany. We are making use of long observational time series of nitrate concentration in 238 catchments covering 40% of the total area of France and Germany. We apply a Weighted Regression on Time, Discharge, and Season (WRTDS) to derive continuous daily flow-normalized concentrations and loads. The temporal pattern of concentration and loads at the catchment outlet is compared to the N input time series evolving from agricultural N surplus, atmospheric deposition and biological fixation. We found that on long-term catchments retain on average 72% of the N input. Time lags between input and output were successfully explained by a lognormal transport time distribution. The modes of these distributions were found to be rather short with a median mode of 5.4 years across all catchments. Based on this data-driven assessment only the fate of N in the catchments is hard to assess as denitrification in soil and groundwater can lead to similar observations as the storage of N in legacies. Focusing on the mobile part of N that is exported by catchments, we estimate that a substantial amount of N is still stored in the subsurface that will be released in the coming years. We therefore analyzed how catchment nitrate export will evolve under the scenario of a total cut down, reduced or constant future N inputs. We report the expected timescale of reaction to implemented measures to help tackling this pressing water quality problem.

How to cite: Musolff, A., Ehrhardt, S., Dupas, R., Kumar, R., Ebeling, P., and Fleckenstein, J. H.: Assessing Nitrogen Legacies in Western Europe, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-14526,, 2021.

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