Air Quality and Health and Welfare

2.5 Nitrogen Oxides

2.5.2 Eutrophication and Nitrification
Nitrogen oxides also result in nitrogen deposition into sensitive nitrogen-saturated coastal estuaries and ecosystems, causing increased growth of algae and other plants (Vitousek, Aber, Howarth, Likens, Matson, Schindler, & Tilman, 1997). Long-term monitoring in the United States, Europe, and other developed regions of the world shows a substantial rise of nitrogen levels in surface waters, which are highly correlated with human-generated inputs of nitrogen to their watersheds. These nitrogen inputs are dominated by fertilizers and atmospheric deposition.

Human activity can increase the flow of nutrients into those waters and result in excess algae and plant growth. This increased growth can cause numerous adverse ecological effects and economic impacts, including nuisance algal blooms, dieback of underwater plants due to reduced light penetration, and toxic plankton blooms. Algal and plankton blooms can also reduce the level of dissolved oxygen, which can also adversely affect fish and shellfish populations. This problem is of particular concern in coastal areas with poor or stratified circulation patterns. In such areas, the "overproduced" algae tends to sink to the bottom and decay, using all or most of the available oxygen and thereby reducing or eliminating populations of bottom-feeder fish and shellfish, distorting the normal population balance between different aquatic organisms, and in extreme cases causing dramatic fish kills.

Collectively, these effects are referred to as eutrophication, which the National Research Council recently identified as the most serious pollution problem facing the estuarine waters of the United States (NRC, 1993). Nitrogen is the primary cause of eutrophication in most coastal waters and estuaries (“Deposition of Air Pollutants to the Great Waters”, 1997). On the New England coast, for example, the number of red and brown tides and shellfish problems from nuisance and toxic plankton blooms have increased over the past two decades, a development thought to be linked to increased nitrogen loadings in coastal waters.