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What is nitrogen?
Nitrogen (N2) is a colorless and odorless gas that is present everywhere around us. The air that we breathe in and out consists of 80 percent nitrogen. Together with oxygen or hydrogen, nitrogen is converted into nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia (NH3). This so-called reactive nitrogen is indispensable for all forms of life on earth. It travels through the air, soil, vegetation and water. For humans and animals, nitrogen – as an essential component of enzymes – is an energy source and building material for the body.
Only small amounts of reactive nitrogen are produced naturally. This is done, among other things, by soil bacteria that fix nitrogen and fertilize the soil in collaboration with plant roots. Reactive nitrogen is also released during a thunderstorm. "Because there is little reactive nitrogen by nature, nature has developed all sorts of complicated processes to use available nitrogen as efficiently as possible. The enormous diversity of processes contributes to the great diversity of species on earth, our biodiversity, "says Jan Willem Erisman, professor of integrated nitrogen studies at VU University Amsterdam.
When does nitrogen become harmful to the environment?
Nitrogen becomes harmful if there is too much of it. Since the middle of the last century, humans have doubled the amount of reactive nitrogen in the environment. Nitrogen oxides are mainly emitted by traffic (in particular diesel) and industry. Ammonia is mainly released in agriculture through evaporation from manure. With artificial fertilizer and animal manure, which contain ammonia, the yields in agriculture are increased to meet the growing need for food in the world. The more ammonia is used in agriculture, the more it leaks into soil, air and water.
When reactive nitrogen enters the nature reserve via air or water, it does the same thing there as in agriculture: it stimulates growth. Erisman: "The fertility of the soil is changing. Fast-growing plants that thrive on nitrogen such as grasses, blackberries and nettles overgrow more vulnerable and sometimes rare species that benefit from nutrient-poor soil. This makes biodiversity poor. "
If you have an eye for it, the effects of nitrogen can be seen everywhere in the Netherlands, says Erisman. Many nitrogen-loving grasses and trees grow in the dunes. The richness of flowers on lawns has decreased. Heather areas are covered with grass. There are fewer butterflies than before. In forests there is more undergrowth of plants that thrive on nitrogen.
Another example: Recent research from the University of Leuven shows that fungal populations in agricultural areas decrease when nitrogen is added. The underground wires, which can be meters long, exchange signals between plants and exchange nutrients between plants, the soil and bacteria. "Fungi have a useful function. They disappear under the influence of nitrogen. "
Ammonia also contributes to acidification of the soil. This happens when plant roots absorb ammonium (NH4) and thereby release hydrogen molecules, which cause substances that are important for plants and animals (calcium, magnesium and potassium) to dissolve and wash away. Many plants and animals cannot withstand that. Erisman: "When flowery plants disappear, the butterflies and other insects that live off the food from the flowers also disappear. Due to soil acidification, less lime is available in forests. Research has shown that tits have limp bones due to lack of lime. "