Reconciling estimates of climate change effects on nitrate leaching from agricultural crops

Jørgen Eivind Olesen, Mohamed Jabloun, Kirsten Schelde


Nitrate leaching from agricultural systems constitutes a severe environmental effect in regions with valuable groundwater resources and vulnerable aquatic ecosystems. Therefore cropping systems should in many parts of Europe reduce the amount of nitrate leached from the root zone. Since soil nitrogen transformation and loss processes are highly influenced by climate, including temperature and precipitation, estimates of climate change effects on nitrate leaching is in high demand for evaluating future groundwater and surface water protection policies. Modelling studies using both the FASSET and Daisy models for cereal crops as well as arable crop rotations in Denmark have shown increased nitrate leaching under projected climate change. Sensitivity analyses using these models have shown a higher response to changes in temperature than to precipitation, although in particular precipitation responses differ between soil types. Simulations for crop rotations show that current catch crop management may not be sufficient to maintain low nitrate leaching levels in future. These effects of temperature and precipitation as well as crop management are confirmed in an empirical analysis of nitrate leaching from a long-term cropping system experiment in Denmark. The main uncertainties on climate change effects on future nitrate leaching appears to be related to effects of climate change on soil organic matter and thus on the amount of soil total N available for mineralization as well as the effects of enhanced atmospheric CO2 concentration on crop residue quality and N mineralization.

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