Impact of nitrogen deposition at the species level

Payne, Richard J.; Dise, Nancy B.; Stevens, Carly J. and Gowing, David J. (2013). Impact of nitrogen deposition at the species level. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(3) pp. 984–987.



In Europe and, increasingly, the rest of the world, the key policy tool for the control of air pollution is the critical load, a level of pollution below which there are no known significant harmful effects on the environment. Critical loads are used to map sensitive regions and habitats, permit individual polluting activities, and frame international negotiations on transboundary air pollution. Despite their fundamental importance in environmental science and policy, there has been no systematic attempt to verify a critical load with field survey data. Here, we use a large dataset of European grasslands along a gradient of nitrogen (N) deposition to show statistically significant declines in the abundance of species from the lowest level of N deposition at which it is possible to identify a change. Approximately 60% of species change points occur at or below the range of the currently established critical load. If this result is found more widely, the underlying principle of no harm in pollution policy may need to be modified to one of informed decisions on how much harm is acceptable. Our results highlight the importance of protecting currently unpolluted areas from new pollution sources, because we cannot rule out ecological impacts from even relatively small increases in reactive N deposition.

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  • Item ORO ID
  • 37481
  • Item Type
  • Journal Item
  • ISSN
  • 1091-6490
  • Project Funding Details
  • Funded Project NameProject IDFunding Body
    Not SetNot SetNERC (Natural Environment Research Council)
    BEGIN (Biodiversity of European Grasslands: The Impact of Atmospheric Nitrogen Deposition)Not SetEuropean Science Foundation project (EuroDIVERSITY Programme)
    PEATBOG (Pollution, Precipitationand Temperature Impacts on Peatland Biodiversity and Biogeochemistry)Not SetEuropean Union FP6 BiodivERsA (ERA-NET)
  • Extra Information
  • Additonal author statement: "and BEGIN Partners" (Members of the BEGIN Partners: Cecilia Duprè, Edu Dorland, Cassandre Gaudnik, Albert Bleeker, Martin Diekmann, Didier Alard, Roland Bobbink, David Fowler, Emmanuel Corcket, J. Owen Mountford, Vigdis Vandvik, Per Arild Aarrestad, and Serge Muller)
  • Keywords
  • plant ecology; Threshold Indicator Taxon Analysis; gradient survey
  • Academic Unit or School
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) > Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences
    Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
  • Research Group
  • OpenSpace Research Centre (OSRC)
  • Copyright Holders
  • © 2013 The Authors, © 2013 National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (retains an exclusive license to publish these articles and holds copyright to the collective work)
  • Depositing User
  • David Gowing