Great question. Nitrogen is one of the most concerning environmental pollutants, primarily in fresh and salt water ecosystems.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth, and it is usually a limiting factor in ecosystems (meaning there the levels of nitrogen are limited enough that plants cannot grow because there is not enough nitrogen). So, when there is an influx of nitrogen in fresh water systems, estuaries or coastal waters usually from runoff from agricultural fertilizers or urban sewage, it can cause a significant increase in plant growth. Then, as these plants die and decay, the decomposition process uses up oxygen in the water, which leads to regions of low oxygen concentrations in coastal waters, estuaries, rivers or streams. Other aquatic life, including fish, cannot survive in these areas of low oxygen, and so areas called “dead zones” are formed where there is little to no aquatic life.
This whole process of nitrogen enrichment is called eutrophication and is very concerning in waterways around the world. One of the largest “dead zones” is in the Gulf of Mexico, which recieves all the agricultural runoff from the farms in the midwest.
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