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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

7 - Nitrogen processes in aquatic ecosystems

from Part II - Nitrogen processing in the biosphere


Executive summary

Nature of the problem

Freshwater ecosystems play a key role in the European nitrogen (N) cycle, both as a reactive agent that transfers, stores and processes N loadings from the atmosphere and terrestrial ecosystems, and as a natural environment severely impacted by the increase of these loadings.


This chapter is a review of major processes and factors controlling N transport and transformations for running waters, standing waters, groundwaters and riparian wetlands.

Key findings/state of knowledge

The major factor controlling N processes in freshwater ecosystems is the residence time of water, which varies widely both in space and in time, and which is sensitive to changes in climate, land use and management.

The effects of increased N loadings to European freshwaters include acidification in semi-natural environments, and eutrophication in more disturbed ecosystems, with associated loss of biodiversity in both cases.

An important part of the nitrogen transferred by surface waters is in the form of organic N, as dissolved organic N (DON) and particulate organic N (PON). This part is dominant in semi-natural catchments throughout Europe and remains a significant component of the total N load even in nitrate enriched rivers.

In eutrophicated standing freshwaters N can be a factor limiting or co-limiting biological production, and control of both N and phosphorus (P) loading is often needed in impacted areas, if ecological quality is to be restored.

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