Lack of pollution, decline in carbon emissions, has ‘negative implications’

From the HELMHOLTZ CENTRE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH – UFZ

The decline in emissions also has negative implications
Scientists clarify the causes of the increasing brown colouration of the water in reservoirs

The Rappbode reservoir in the Harz region -- it also is affected by the increasing brown colouration of the water. It is one of 36 reservoirs in Germany which have been studied by UFZ scientists in order to identify the causes of increasing brown colouration. CREDIT UFZ / André Künzelmann

The Rappbode reservoir in the Harz region — it also is affected by the increasing brown colouration of the water. It is one of 36 reservoirs in Germany which have been studied by UFZ scientists in order to identify the causes of increasing brown colouration. CREDIT UFZ / André Künzelmann

Due to the burning of biomass and fossil fuels and, above all, due to agriculture, excessive quantities of reactive nitrogen are still being released into the atmosphere, soil and water — with negative effects on biodiversity, the climate and human health. However, a differentiated analysis of nitrogen input pathways from the different sources reveals significant differences. While nitrogen inputs into soils — primarily due to agriculture — have elevated nitrate concentrations in the groundwater of many regions to values above the threshold of 50 mg per litre, atmospheric pollution is decreasing in large parts of Europe and North America due to emission-reducing measures. This means that less nitrogen is released into soils and water via atmospheric depositions. Long-term measurements over the past 20 years clearly indicate that this is the case in Germany: On average 35 mg less atmospheric nitrogen was released into the soils per square metre per year. According to studies conducted by UFZ scientists, this leads to 0.08 mg less nitrate per litre per year entering streams and drinking water reservoirs.

“It does not sound like much, but in a number of natural areas not or hardly impacted by industry and agriculture, pre-industrial conditions will set in over time,” says UFZ hydrogeologist Dr. Andreas Musolff. “At less than 6 mg of nitrate per litre of water in some cases, conditions are far from the problematic nitrate concentrations measured in regions heavily impacted by industry or agriculture.”

That this positive development can also have negative implications became apparent when scientists started studying the causes of a brown colouration of water in reservoirs increasingly observable in Germany, northern Europe and North America. This brown colouration is especially problematic for drinking water treatment. In reviewing various hypotheses, they noted that the brown colouration of the water was strongly correlated with the decreasing concentrations of nitrate in the riparian soils surrounding the tributary streams of the reservoirs. This is due to the fact that the presence of nitrate in the riparian wetlands where most of the stream flow is generated ensures that carbon, phosphate and various metals remain bound to oxidised iron. Lower nitrate levels allow a chemical reduction of iron compounds and thus the mobilisation of previously adsorbed substances. Thus, compounds previously bound to soil particles become mobile and are released into the streams with the rainwater. In the case of carbon this means that the concentration of dissolved organic carbon increases and is visible as the brownish colour of the water. In just under 40 percent of the 110 tributaries of drinking water reservoirs that were studied, the scientists found significantly increased DOC concentrations with an average of 0.12 mg more DOC per litre per year. The most significant increase was found in natural, forested, where nitrate concentrations in the water were less than 6 mg per litre.

In addition to DOC, phosphate concentrations are also increasing significantly in over 30 per cent of the tributaries. The calculated average 7 μg per litre per year tends to favour algae growth and is equally problematic for water quality in the long run. There is evidence that not only DOC and phosphate, but also adsorbed metals such as arsenic, vanadium, zinc and lead are increasingly becoming mobilised. “We solve one problem by making the air cleaner, but in turn create a different problem in other areas,” says biologist Dr. Jörg Tittel, head of the project at the UFZ, explaining the unexpected effect. “None of the dissolved substances is toxic at this low concentration and the substances are also largely removed by water treatment. However, water treatment is becoming more expensive.”

Initial evidence confirming this hypothesis was provided by the evaluation of data collected for a small 1.7 km2 catchment in the Erzgebirge mountains near the Wilzsch, a tributary of the Zwickauer Mulde, which flows into the Carlsfeld reservoir. Thereafter scientists chose a much larger scale, focusing on 110 streams and their catchments entering a total of 36 drinking water reservoirs. Despite a much greater diversity in terms of the size of the streams and their catchments, their topography, the amount of precipitation, land use and the chemical characteristics, the hypothesis could be confirmed based on this much larger data set as well: The observed increase in DOC is closely correlated with the decreasing amount of nitrate in the water.

In the meantime a discussion has begun as to how the results of this meta-analysis can be translated into practical measures to halt the increase in DOC, in partnership with the relevant authorities. “The study helps to focus future research on the relevant processes and to plan appropriate field experiments that further improve the basis for decision-making in terms of concrete measures,” says Andreas Musolff.

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The paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13498/abstract;jsessionid=4E003F928A417029619B1F90CEDBB49A.f03t02

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50 thoughts on “Lack of pollution, decline in carbon emissions, has ‘negative implications’

  1. So, pre-industrial water was more polluted than post-industrial water.
    That’s what we’re better off with according to the IPCC?

    Give me back my Carbon!

    • No, it’s that people have the concepts of brown, dirty-looking water as being “polluted”, when it’s not. Crystal clear water has never been the norm for most of society.

      • The various ponds, lakes and dams in the Cape Mountains are all stained brown ( turbidity ) from the fynbos roots. The water is clear but brown, like weak tea really.

      • Out in the wilderness, crystal clear water can be the most polluted water of all. A “dead pool” is contaminated by mineral poisons leeched from the ground (like arsenic), yet looks completely clean. *Too* clean.

        Life is drawn to water. If there’s water and no life, something is very wrong with the water and it should not be touched.

  2. What are the ‘negative implications’ again?

    This is interesting. After fixing the really serious air and water pollution problems we are going to find some dubious insignificant things to worry about. Like insignificant change in premature over a century which is not climate change.

    I am really surprised that a biologist does not know where birds and fish sh!t.

  3. Over here in the states, stained brown river and lake water is perfectly natursl and attributed to tannic acid from leaves. Maybe this is a roundabout way of saying the same thing in a climate-panic sort of way.

    • Yes. Misleading. There is no decline in carbon (dioxide) emissions. The article is primarily about nitrogen.

  4. In the case of carbon this means that the concentration of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) increases and is visible as the brownish colour of the water. In just under 40 percent of the 110 tributaries of drinking water reservoirs that were studied, the scientists found significantly increased DOC concentrations with an average of 0.12 mg more DOC per litre per year.

    I had trouble figuring out what DOC meant. link

      • The correct way is to write it like CommieBob has – with the abbreviation after the first instance of the term. Using the acronym without defining it properly is simply inviting confusion. Language “rules” are there for a purpose – to remove confusion and although the meaning here can be surmised it opens up potential misinterpretation. Every scientist has that drummed into them (or should have) during undergraduate studies. I suspect this is a press release rather than the paper or it would not have got passed the editorial review.

      • It’s almost as bad as someone who learns a new word, especially if it sounds technical or “sophisticated” you can tell, as they use it all the time to exhaustion!

      • Not all carbon is organic. In addition to elemental carbon (ie. soot, diamonds, etc.) there are inorganic carbon compounds “which are associated with minerals or which do not contain hydrogen or fluorine”. link

  5. Doesn’t make any difference what little harm it does nor what help it provides as long as humans are responsible it’s no good because it’s not natural. It’s all because of Adam and Eve and that damn apple.

  6. We’re paying for this stuff you know.

    It is just so weird that government would pay for all this tripe with tax dollars.
    ————————
    Funded by
    Federal Ministry of Education and Research Germany (BMBF). Grant Number: 02WT1290A

  7. We will have to stop breathing so as not to emit any pollution.
    We will stop growing and eating food, as livestock and fertilizer pollute the earth.
    Please find the nearest accessible piece of moral high ground and prepare to meet your maker.

  8. Water with dissolved manganese is also brown, so I have read, though it seems to affect certain streams here rather than entire drinking-water sources.
    Ian M

  9. There may be another interesting offshoot of this research. The question: “What effect, if any, results from all the excitement about the strict enforcement (or not) of the NOx emissions rules on VW in their automotive diesel engines?” From the description here it seems that the MORE NOx added to the atmosphere by our transportation system, the more nitrates are available and the LESS this problem might become.

  10. When I was still young and handsome (now I’m only handsome…), we did a field trip to BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany with our chemistry class. They explained that a rare plant had vanished in the area after BASF was forced to implement clean air filters – that reduced the sulphur in the environment such, that the plants which depended on a certain sulphur level disappeared, that is to say, the natural level of sulphur in the environment was too low for the plants to grow in the area and only the industrial pollution created the habitat…. And so it is with other things. Let me bore you with another anecdote from Prof Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents (someone send Trump a copy): he said that in some parts of the US the natural radioactive radiation is so high, that it would be considered contaminated if the source were man made… there you go ;)

    • At my first reactor, we wore white booties and paper coveralls into the plant to keep from bring in natural radioactivity. If you were doing maintenance on a radioactive system you would then put on yellow anti-c’s to protect the worker and keep from spreading contamination form the reactor.

      I was at a plant in California where high levels of radon resulted in outside air being more ‘contaminated’ than airborne levels in the basement of the reactor building.

      On my surface nuke ship, officers standing watch on the bridge got more radiation exposure from the sun than officers standing watch in the engine room.

  11. Just a For Your Information (FYI): Bottled water, after purification, has minerals added back in, to improve flavor and mouth feel. We did not evolve drinking distilled water, we’re supposed to get some of our micro-nutrient minerals from water.

    • After it has been sterilised with chlorine, then filtered toremove the chlorine, then a small amount (labelled as clorides) added back in to give it shelf-life! Sorry bottled-water fans, there is no little man in leaderhosen sitting by the stream filling up the bottles, it’s a $6-8B/year industry!

  12. You want brown water..

    Try Lake Ainsworth in NSW Australia

    The colour comes from the local Australian Tea Tree

    • Looks just like almost all creeks, rivers and lakes in Florida and the south. Except for spring runs. Millions swim and water ski in these waters every year. Most of the color is attributed to Cypress trees.

  13. It is interesting they don’t mention eutrophication of the receiving streams. In fresh water nitrogen is not usually a limiting element, phosphorus is the element limiting plant growth in fresh water.

  14. “atmospheric pollution is decreasing in large parts of Europe and North America due to emission-reducing measures.”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that CO2 is still increasing in the atmosphere as we speak.

    So where is this DOC not coming from then? Is it because that carbon particulates have decreased?

    This story does not make a lot of sense to me.

    Cheers

    Roger

    http://www.thedemiseofchristchurch.com

    • Simple answer – the greening of the planet corresponds to a browning of the waters.

      Plants convert the CO2 into other carbon compounds (someone mentioned tannic acid above, from oak leaves, although there are many other brownish organic compounds) – formula C76H52O46.

      These compounds can be bound to the soil, if there are sufficient various nitrates – when there aren’t enough, they run off in the rain water. Which is a good thing (for the plants). Too high a concentration of many of these compounds are actually poisonous to the vegetation, particularly younger deciduous trees and bushes. The tannic acid in fallen oak leaves is one of the reasons that fully mature oak forests are not filled with underbrush and younger oak trees.

    • “So where is this DOC coming from then? ”
      Explained in article :
      “the presence of nitrate […] ensures that carbon, phosphate and various metals remain bound […]. Lower nitrate levels allow […] the mobilisation of previously adsorbed substances. Thus, compounds previously bound to soil particles become mobile and are released into the streams”.

  15. Most European ecosystems are so highly altered that local people often no longer have a frame of reference for what is normal. The reduction in N input is not large (.35kg/ha ii~.35 lb/acre). Atmospheric N inputs of 5 to 10 kg/ha are not uncommon in industrialised areas so it is difficult to believe that such small changes in N deposition really matter. If the total acidic deposition has decreased sufficiently that soil pH is rising again in the study area, then the observations are very easily understood through soil chemistry that has been understood for many decades. Phosphorus is more tightly bound under acidic conditions. I am not sure what a hydrogeologist is but it seems like he might have been a lot less surprised by their findings if one of the authors had taken the time to read any introductory soils text that included phrases like “Phosphorus availability and pH”, “anion exchange “, “Al and Fe phosphates”, etc etc. The second favourite activity of junk science after publishing the irreproducible is the publication of information new to the author’s typically highly specialized discipline? The reinvented work is conveniently reviewed by people who are equally limited.

  16. It almost seems like people are misreading the article on purpose. Let me summarize
    Lower nitrogen content = greater mobility of metals and minerals
    Reservoirs collect these toxins
    In pre-industrial times there were not the types of reservoirs we have now, so the type of accumulation being observed was not as much of an issue. The problem is a combination of low nitrogen in non-industrial areas and tributaries into reservoirs. A couple obvious ways to solve the problem (none of which are easy, some not even feasible)
    1) Sealed reservoirs in non-leaching containers (like clay) – similar to ancient Mesopotamian cisterns
    2) Direct the water towards underground aquifers which do not appear to have the same problem
    3) Freeze the water in place
    4) Phosphate drops on wilderness areas (has been done in Brazil)
    5) Install better water filters and chalk the reduced phosphate up as an overall win even if there are some downsides
    Personal favorite is #5

  17. This article reminds me of soil sulfur deficiencies observed throughout the world when air regulations reduced SO2 emissions. To address problems with the sulfur deficit soils and to limit excess nitrogen loss issues the Tennessee Valley Authorities (TVA’s) National Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) developed sulfur-coated urea (SCU) in the early ’70s thru the late ’80s.

    When placed on the ground SCU inhibits the release of urea into the ground until wetted. Once wetted the area around the SCU “granule” is slightly acidified allowing the inhibition of the conversion of urea to nitrate. This allowed the nitrogen “available” to plants to be slowly introduced over longer periods of time. Typically from a release time went from two weeks with urea to eight weeks with SCU. Other advantages, were that the local “acid” conditions created by the release of sulfur helped “fix” phosphates – inhibiting loss of both nitrogen and phosphorus into the water ways while retaining plant availability.

    SCU remains the lowest cost controlled-release fertilizer in use today, however controlled release fertilizers aren’t used extensively in commercial agriculture due to their higher cost relative to ordinary urea.

  18. If you like Mother Nature’s ‘cappuccino’-
    http://www.rainbowcoast.com.au/areas/walpole/circularpool.htm

    Most of our rivers not infested with muddying, introduced European Carp or desert flooding, but flowing through Eucalypt forests are black from tannins. City slickers used to filtered, chlorinated, fluoridated tap water or their ubiquitous bottled water are absolutely horrified to see you quench your thirst from them. Unfortunately these are the very people that swallow the CAGW meme hook, line and sinker.

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