Nitrogen contained in coral provides evidence of human impact on the open ocean

Pooja Makhijani, Office of Communications ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

“Anthropogenic nitrogen deposition is, perhaps, substantially less severe than has been argued,” said PEI affiliated faculty, Daniel Sigman. In other words, the results of this study suggest that atmospheric nitrogen deposition in the open ocean “is not the problem we may need to worry the most about,” he said. 

New evidence suggests that a nutrient that is both essential to life and an environmental scourge when present in large quantities is increasing in the open ocean, according to a new study published May 19 in the journal Science. The increase of this nutrient, known as “fixed” nitrogen, was studied in coral. The findings give researchers new insight into ocean ecosystems, which in turn provides a greater understanding for scientists and policymakers on how they should prioritize human-made threats to Earth’s biosphere and climate.

An international team of researchers, including those from Princeton University, reported an increase in anthropogenic nitrogen deposition, or the deposition from the atmosphere of fixed nitrogen, resulting from human activities on Dongsha Atoll. The atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef in the northern South China Sea, about 210 miles from land.

The researchers also reported that their observed measurements are lower than those predicted by atmospheric chemistry models, offering the possibility that improved combustion technology and the adoption of renewable energy sources in the region may be able to curb the nitrogen contamination before it influences open ocean biology significantly.