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With Too Much of a Good Thing, Europe Tackles Excess Nitrogen

With Too Much of a Good Thing, Europe Tackles Excess Nitrogen

In Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries, European governments are beginning to push farmers, industry, and municipalities to cut back on fertilizers and other sources of nitrogen that are causing serious environmental harm.

by christian schwagerl

Only seconds after Claudia Wiedner drops the metallic rod into the gray waters of Lake Scharmützel, 30 miles southeast of Berlin, the probe starts sending signals back to her computer. On a cold, foggy day in March, Wiedner, a limnologist at the Brandenburg University of Cottbus-Senftenburg, and a research technician are out on the water in their small vessel to investigate nitrogen pollution.

The water samples they pull up tell an encouraging tale — at least in this lake. “We have been measuring reactive nitrogen and phosphorus in this lake since 1993 and what we see is a change for the better — levels have dropped considerably,” Wiedner says. Her colleague, Ingo Henschke, an avid diver and former fisherman, can attest to this, saying that better sewage treatment and a decrease in nearby farming have significantly improved water quality.

“I was able to document a return of large swaths of stoneworts algae and the rich water life they sustain,” Henschke says. 

But Scharmützel Lake is an exception in Germany — it serves as a kind of gold standard for positive changes. For like the rest of Europe and much of the world, Germany’s waterways are suffering from a surplus of nitrogen that is spread across fields as fertilizer, pours off of farms where livestock and chickens are raised, or flows out of factories, sewage systems, and wastewater treatment plants. The result is harmful algal blooms in lakes, dead zones in oceans, and an impoverishment of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity — problems that the European Union is now trying to address. 

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