The fate of nitrogen and phosphorus at the land-sea margin of the North Atlantic Ocean

S. W. Nixon, J. W. Ammerman, L. P. Atkinson, V. M. Berounsky, G. Billen, W. C. Boicourt, W. R. Boynton, T. M. Church, D. M. Ditoro, R. Elmgren, J. H. Garber, A. E. Giblin, R. A. Jahnke, N. J.P. Owens, M. E.Q. Pilson, S. P. Seitzinger

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695 Citations (Scopus)


Five large rivers that discharge on the western North Atlantic continental shelf carry about 45% of the nitrogen (N) and 70% of the phosphorus (P) that others estimate to be the total flux of these elements from the entire North Atlantic watershed, including North, Central and South America, Europe, and Northwest Africa. We estimate that 61 · 109 moles y- 1 of N and 20 · 109 moles y-1 of P from the large rivers are buried with sediments in their deltas, and that an equal amount of N and P from the large rivers is lost to the shelf through burial of river sediments that are deposited directly on the continental slope. The effective transport of active N and P from land to the shelf through the very large rivers is thus reduced to 292 · 109 moles y-1 of N and 13 · 109 moles y-1 of P. The remaining riverine fluxes from land must pass through estuaries. An analysis of annual total N and total P budgets for various estuaries around the North Atlantic revealed that the net fractional transport of these nutrients through estuaries to the continental shelf is inversely correlated with the log mean residence time of water in the system. This is consistent with numerous observations of nutrient retention and loss in temperate lakes. Denitrification is the major process responsible for removing N in most estuaries, and the fraction of total N input that is denitrified appears to be directly proportional to the log mean water residence time. In general, we estimate that estuarine processes retain and remove 30-65% of the total N and 10-55% of the total P that would otherwise pass into the coastal ocean. The resulting transport through estuaries to the shelf amounts to 172-335 · 109 moles y-1 of N and 11-19 · 109 moles y-1 of P. These values are similar to the effective contribution from the large rivers that discharge directly on the shelf. For the North Atlantic shelf as a whole, N fluxes from major rivers and estuaries exceed atmospheric deposition by a factor of 3.5-4.7, but this varies widely among regions of the shelf. For example, on the U.S. Atlantic shelf and on the northwest European shelf, atmospheric deposition of N may exceed estuarine exports. Denitrification in shelf sediments exceeds the combined N input from land and atmosphere by a factor of 1.4-2.2. This deficit must be met by a flux of N from the deeper ocean. Burial of organic matter fixed on the shelf removes only a small fraction of the total N and P input (2-12% of N from land and atmosphere; 1-17% of P), but it may be a significant loss for P in the North Sea and some other regions. The removal of N and P in fisheries landings is very small. The gross exchange of N and P between the shelf and the open ocean is much larger than inputs from land and, for the North Atlantic shelf as a whole, it may be much larger than the N and P removed through denitrification, burial, and fisheries. Overall, the North Atlantic continental shelf appears to remove some 700-950 · 109 moles of N each year from the deep ocean and to transport somewhere between 18 and 30 · 109 moles of P to the open sea. If the N and P associated with riverine sediments deposited on the continental slope are included in the total balance, the net flux of N to the shelf is reduced by 60 · 109 moles y-1 and the P flux to the ocean is increased by 20 γ 109 moles y-1. These conclusions are quite tentative, however, because of large uncertainties in our estimates of some important terms in the shelf mass balance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-180
Number of pages40
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 1996


  • continential shelf
  • estuaries
  • mass balance
  • nitrogen
  • North Atlantic
  • nutrient budget
  • phosphorus


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