What is the most ecologically-meaningful metric of nitrogen deposition?

Richard Payne (Corresponding Author), C Campbell, Andrea J. Britton, Ruth Mitchell, Robin J. Pakeman, Laurence Jones, Louise C Ross, Carly J. Stevens, C Field, Simon Caporn, J Carroll, J Edmondson, E Carnell, S Tomlinson, A Dore, Nancy B. Dise, Ulrike Dragisits

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Nitrogen (N) deposition poses a severe risk to global terrestrial ecosystems, and managing this threat is an important focus for air pollution science and policy. To understand and manage the impacts of N deposition, we need metrics which accurately reflect N deposition pressure on the environment, and are responsive to changes in both N deposition and its impacts over time. In the UK, the metric typically used is a measure of total N deposition over 1–3 years, despite evidence that N accumulates in many ecosystems and impacts from low-level exposure can take considerable time to develop. Improvements in N deposition modelling now allow the development of metrics which incorporate the long-term history of pollution, as well as current exposure. Here we test the potential of alternative N deposition metrics to explain vegetation compositional variability in British semi-natural habitats. We assembled 36 individual datasets representing 48,332 occurrence records in 5479 quadrats from 1683 sites, and used redundancy analyses to test the explanatory power of 33 alternative N metrics based on national pollutant deposition models. We find convincing evidence for N deposition impacts across datasets and habitats, even when accounting for other large-scale drivers of vegetation change. Metrics that incorporate long-term N deposition trajectories consistently explain greater compositional variance than 1–3 year N deposition. There is considerable variability in results across habitats and between similar metrics, but overall we propose that a thirty-year moving window of cumulative deposition is optimal to represent impacts on plant communities for application in science, policy and management.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-331
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Early online date18 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019


  • air pollution
  • biodiversity
  • cumulative deposition
  • vegetation
  • community ecology
  • environmental change
  • nitrogen deposition
  • Community ecology
  • Environmental change
  • Cumulative deposition
  • Biodiversity
  • Vegetation
  • Air pollution
  • Nitrogen deposition

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    Payne, R., Campbell, C., Britton, A. J., Mitchell, R., Pakeman, R. J., Jones, L., Ross, L. C., Stevens, C. J., Field, C., Caporn, S., Carroll, J., Edmondson, J., Carnell, E., Tomlinson, S., Dore, A., Dise, N. B., & Dragisits, U. (2019). What is the most ecologically-meaningful metric of nitrogen deposition? Environmental Pollution, 247, 319-331. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2019.01.059