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Biogeochemical cycles

Key points

 Energy flows through an ecosystem and is dissipated as heat, but chemical elements are recycled.
 The ways in which an element—or compound such as water—moves between its various living and nonliving
forms and locations in the biosphere is called a biogeochemical cycle.
 Biogeochemical cycles important to living organisms include the water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and
sulfur cycles.

Introduction

What is your body made of? Not to put too fine a point on it: atoms. Lots and lots of them. About
7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to be precise.^11start superscript, 1, end superscriptWhere did all of
those atoms come from?
If we really walk it backwards, most of the elements that make up our bodies—and those of every other living
thing!—were born in dying stars billions of years ago. That's pretty cool, but it doesn't capture the whole
picture. What have the atoms of your body been doing more recently, during their time on Earth?
Energy flows, but matter is recycled.

Energy flows directionally through Earth’s ecosystems, typically entering in the form of sunlight and exiting in
the form of heat. However, the chemical components that make up living organisms are different: they get
recycled.
What does that mean? For one thing, the atoms in your body are not brand new. Instead, they've been cycling
through the biosphere for a long, long time, and they've been part of many organisms and nonliving compounds
along the way. You may or may not believe in reincarnation as a spiritual concept, but there's no question that
atoms in your body have been part of a huge number of living and nonliving things over the course of time!

In this image, the flow of energy is shown with yellow and red arrows. Yellow indicates usable energy and red
indicates energy lost in the unusable form of heat. Green arrows show the continual recycling of chemical
nutrients. Image credit: Biogeochemical cycles: Figure 1 by Eva Horne and Robert A. Bear; source article is
The diagram above compares how energy and matter move through ecosystems. Energy—yellow arrows—
typically enters in the form of sunlight, then it is captured in the form of chemical bonds by producers such as
plants, and finally it is transferred to consumers, such as animals that eat the plants or eat other animals.
Eventually, the plants and animals die, and the chemical-bond energy in their bodies and waste products is
released by decomposers. In each transfer, some energy is converted to the unusable form of heat—red
arrows—and, eventually, all of the energy is dissipated.

The atoms—green arrows—that make up the bodies of organisms, in contrast, are not lost. Although the energy
contained in the bonds between atoms may be released as heat, the atoms themselves remain. They are simply
recycled, changing forms and ultimately going to replenish the pool of inorganic elements and compounds
incorporated into the tissues of the producers.

The six most common elements in organic molecules—carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and
sulfur—take a variety of chemical forms. They may be stored for long or short periods in the atmosphere, on
land, in water, or beneath the Earth’s surface, as well as in the bodies of living organisms. Geologic processes—
such as weathering of rocks, erosion, water drainage, and the subduction of continental plates—all play a role in
this recycling of materials, as do interactions among organisms.

The ways in which an element—or, in some cases, a compound such as water—moves between its various
living and nonliving forms and locations is called a biogeochemical cycle. This name reflects the importance of
chemistry and geology as well as biology in helping us understand these cycles.
Which biogeochemical cycles are key to life?

Water, which contains hydrogen and oxygen, is essential for living organisms. That places the water cycle pretty high on

the list of cycles we care about!

The hydrosphere—the set of places where water can be found as it cycles on Earth—is large and diverse. Water is

present as a liquid on the Earth's surface and underneath the ground, as ice in the polar ice caps and glaciers, and as water

vapor in the atmosphere. For more information about how water cycles among these forms, check out the water

cycle article.

Water makes up more than half of our bodies, but humans cannot live by water alone. Instead, there are some other key

elements that keep our bodies running and are part of biogeochemical cycles:

 Carbon is found in all organic macromolecules and is also a key component of fossil fuels. See the carbon cycle article for

more info.

 Nitrogen is needed for our DNA, RNA, and proteins and is critical to human agriculture. See the nitrogen cycle article for

more info.
 Phosphorus is a key component of DNA and RNA and is one of the main ingredients—along with nitrogen—in artificial

fertilizers used in agriculture.

 Sulfur is key to protein structure and is released to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels.

These cycles don't happen in isolation, and the water cycle is a particularly important driver of other biogeochemical

cycles. For example, the movement of water is critical for the leaching of nitrogen and phosphate into rivers, lakes, and

oceans. The ocean is also a major reservoir—holding tank—for carbon.

Though each element or compound takes its own route, all of these key chemical nutrients cycle through the biosphere,

moving between the biotic—living—and abiotic—nonliving—worlds and from one living organism to another.
The Water Cycle
Key points

 The vast majority of Earth's water is saltwater found in oceans. Only a tiny fraction is readily accessible
freshwater, which is what humans need.

 Water found at the Earth's surface can cycle rapidly, but much of Earth's water lies in ice, oceans, and
underground reservoirs; this water cycles slowly.

 The water cycle is complex and involves state changes in water as well as the physical movement of water
through and between ecosystems.

 Groundwater is found underground between soil particles and in cracks of rocks. Aquifers are groundwater
reservoirs often tapped by wells.
Water: Why does it matter?

Water is pretty darn important for living things. Your body is more than one-half water, and if we were to take a
look at your cells, we’d find they were over 70% water! So, you—like most land animals—need a reliable
supply of fresh water to survive.

Of the water on Earth, 97.5% is salt water. Of the remaining water, over 99% is in the form of underground
water or ice. All told, less than 1% of fresh water is found in lakes, rivers, and other available surface forms.

The pie chart shows that 97.5% of water on Earth, or 1,365,000,000 kilometers cubed, is salt water. The
remaining 2.5%, or 35,000,000 kilometers cubed, is fresh water. Of the fresh water, 68.9% is frozen in glaciers
or permanent snow cover. Groundwater—such as soil moisture, swamp water, and permafrost—account for
30.8%. The remaining 0.3% is in lakes and rivers.
Many living things depend on this small supply of surface fresh water, and lack of water can have serious
effects on ecosystems. Humans, of course, have come up with some technologies to increase water availability.
These include digging wells to get at groundwater, collecting rainwater, and using desalination—salt removal—
to get fresh water from the ocean. Still, clean, safe drinking water is not always available in many parts of the
world today.

Most of the water on Earth does not cycle—move from one place to another—very rapidly. We can see this in
the figure below, which shows the average time that an individual water molecule spends in each of Earth’s
major water reservoirs, a measurement called residence time. Water in oceans, underground, and in the form of
ice tends to cycle very slowly. Only surface water cycles rapidly.

The water cycle

The water cycle is driven by the Sun’s energy. The sun warms the ocean surface and other surface water,
causing liquid water to evaporate and ice to sublime—turn directly from a solid to a gas. These sun-driven
processes move water into the atmosphere in the form of water vapor.

Over time, water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into clouds and eventually falls as precipitation, rain or
snow. When precipitation reaches Earth's surface, it has a few options: it may evaporate again, flow over the
surface, or percolate—sink down—into the ground.

In land-based, or terrestrial, ecosystems in their natural state, rain usually hits the leaves and other surfaces of
plants before it reaches the soil. Some water evaporates quickly from the surfaces of the plants. The water that's
left reaches the soil and, in most cases, will begin to move down into it.

In general, water moves along the surface as runoff only when the soil is saturated with water, when rain is
falling very hard, or when the surface can't absorb much water. A non-absorbent surface could be rock in a
natural ecosystem or asphalt or cement in an urban or suburban ecosystem.
Water evaporates form the ocean surface and forms clouds by condensation. Water in clouds may fall as
precipitation over either the land or the sea. Clouds formed over the sea may move over the land. When rain
falls over the land, it may flow along the surface, infiltrate the soil—move into it from above ground—and
percolate through the soil, moving downward to become groundwater. Groundwater in upper levels may flow
into rivers, lakes, or oceans. Water near the soil surface may be taken up by plants and move out of their bodies
through transpiration from the leaves. Snowmelt runoff and sublimation of snow and ice are other processes that
contribute to the water cycle.

Water in the upper levels of the soil can be taken up by plant roots. Plants use some of the water for their own
metabolism, and water that's in plant tissues can find its way into animals’ bodies when the plants get eaten.
However, most of the water that enters a plant's body will be lost back to the atmosphere in a process
called transpiration. In transpiration, water enters through the roots, travels upwards through vascular tubes
made out of dead cells, and evaporates through pores called stomata found in the leaves.
[Why would a plant take up water it's not going to use?]
If water is not taken up by plant roots, it may percolate down into the subsoil and bedrock, forming
groundwater. Groundwater is water found in the pores between particles in sand and gravel or in the cracks in
rocks, and it’s an important reservoir of freshwater. Shallow groundwater flows slowly through pores and
fissures and may eventually find its way to a stream or lake, where it can become part of the surface water
again.

Some groundwater lies deep in the bedrock and can stay there for millennia. Groundwater reservoirs,
or aquifers, are usually the source of drinking or irrigation water drawn up through wells. Today, many aquifers
are being used up faster than they're renewed by water that moves down from above.
The water cycle drives other cycles.

The water cycle is important in itself, and patterns of water cycling and rainfall have major effects on Earth's
ecosystems. However, rainfall and surface runoff also play important roles in the cycling of various elements.
These include carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. In particular, surface runoff helps move elements from
terrestrial, land-based, to aquatic ecosystems.

We'll take a closer look at how this works in the following articles, where we'll examine different elements'
biogeochemical cycles.

The carbon cycle


Key points

 Carbon is an essential element in the bodies of living organisms. It is also economically important to modern
humans, in the form of fossil fuels.
 Carbon dioxide—CO2—from the atmosphere is taken up by photosynthetic organisms and used to make organic
molecules, which travel through food chains. In the end, the carbon atoms are released as CO2 in respiration.
 Slow geological processes, including the formation of sedimentary rock and fossil fuels, contribute to the
carbon cycle over long timescales.
 Some human activities, such as burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, increase atmospheric CO2 and affect
Earth's climate and oceans.

Carbon: building block and fuel source

About 18% of your body consists of carbon atoms, by mass, and those carbon atoms are pretty key to your
existence!^11start superscript, 1, end superscript Without carbon, you wouldn't have the plasma membranes of
your cells, the sugar molecules you use for fuel, or even the DNA that carries instructions to build and run your
body.

Carbon is part of our bodies, but it's also part of our modern-day industries. Carbon compounds from long-ago
plants and algae make up the fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, that we use today as energy sources.
When these fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide released into the air, leading to higher and higher levels of
atmospheric . This increase in CO2 levels affects Earth's climate and is a major environmental concern
worldwide.

Let's take a look at the carbon cycle and see how atmospheric CO2 and carbon use by living organisms fit into
the bigger picture of carbon cycling.
The carbon cycle

The carbon cycle is most easily studied as two interconnected subcycles:

 One dealing with rapid carbon exchange among living organisms


 One dealing with long-term cycling of carbon through geologic processes
Although we will look at them separately, it's important to realize these cycles are linked. For instance, the same
pools of atmospheric and oceanic CO2, end subscript that are utilized by organisms are also fed and depleted by
geological processes.

As a brief overview, carbon exists in the air largely as carbon dioxide— CO2—gas, which dissolves in water
and reacts with water molecules to produce bicarbonate. Photosynthesis by land plants, bacteria, and algae
converts carbon dioxide or bicarbonate into organic molecules. Organic molecules made by photosynthesizers
are passed through food chains, and cellular respiration converts the organic carbon back into carbon dioxide
gas.

Image credit: Biogeochemical cycles: Figure 3 by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0; modification of
work by John M. Evans and Howard Perlman, USGS
Longterm storage of organic carbon occurs when matter from living organisms is buried deep underground or
sinks to the bottom of the ocean and forms sedimentary rock. Volcanic activity and, more recently, human
burning of fossil fuels bring this stored carbon back into the carbon cycle. Although the formation of fossil fuels
happens on a slow, geologic timescale, human release of the carbon they contain—as \text{CO}_2CO2C, O,
start subscript, 2, end subscript—is on a very fast timescale.
The biological carbon cycle

Carbon enters all food webs, both terrestrial and aquatic, through autotrophs, or self-feeders. Almost all of
these autotrophs are photsynthesizers, such as plants or algae.

Autotrophs capture carbon dioxide from the air or bicarbonate ions from the water and use them to make
organic compounds such as glucose. Heterotrophs, or other-feeders, such as humans, consume the organic
molecules, and the organic carbon is passed through food chains and webs.

How does carbon cycle back to the atmosphere or ocean? To release the energy stored in carbon-containing
molecules, such as sugars, autotrophs and heterotrophs break these molecules down in a process called cellular
respiration. In this process, the carbons of the molecule are released as carbon dioxide. Decomposers also
release organic compounds and carbon dioxide when they break down dead organisms and waste products.

Carbon can cycle quickly through this biological pathway, especially in aquatic ecosystems. Overall, an
estimated 1,000 to 100,000 million metric tons of carbon move through the biological pathway each year. For
context, a metric ton is about the weight of an elephant or a small car!^{2,3,4}2,3,4start superscript, 2, comma,
3, comma, 4, end superscript
The geological carbon cycle

The geological pathway of the carbon cycle takes much longer than the biological pathway described above. In
fact, it usually takes millions of years for carbon to cycle through the geological pathway. Carbon may be stored
for long periods of time in the atmosphere, bodies of liquid water—mostly oceans— ocean sediment, soil,
rocks, fossil fuels, and Earth’s interior.

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is influenced by the reservoir of carbon in the oceans and vice
versa. Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in water and reacts with water molecules in the following
reactions:
The nitrogen cycle
Key points

 Nitrogen is a key component of the bodies of living organisms. Nitrogen atoms are found in all proteins
and \text{DNA}DNAD, N, A.

 Nitrogen exists in the atmosphere as \text N_2N2N, start subscript, 2, end subscript gas. In nitrogen fixation,
bacteria convert \text N_2N2N, start subscript, 2, end subscript into ammonia, a form of nitrogen usable by
plants. When animals eat the plants, they acquire usable nitrogen compounds.

 Nitrogen is a common limiting nutrient in nature, and agriculture. A limiting nutrient is the nutrient that's in
shortest supply and limits growth.

 When fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorous are carried in runoff to lakes and rivers, they can result in
blooms of algae—this is called eutrophication.
Introduction

Nitrogen is everywhere! In fact, \text N_2N2N, start subscript, 2, end subscript gas makes up about 78% of
Earth's atmosphere by volume, far surpassing the \text O_2O2O, start subscript, 2, end subscript we often think
of as "air".^11start superscript, 1, end superscript

But having nitrogen around and being able to make use of it are two different things. Your body, and the bodies
of other plants and animals, have no good way to convert \text N_2N2N, start subscript, 2, end subscript into a
usable form. We animals—and our plant compatriots—just don't have the right enzymes to capture, or fix,
atmospheric nitrogen.

Still, your \text{DNA}DNAD, N, A and proteins contain quite a bit of nitrogen. Where does that nitrogen come
from? In the natural world, it comes from bacteria!
Bacteria play a key role in the nitrogen cycle.

Nitrogen enters the living world by way of bacteria and other single-celled prokaryotes, which convert
atmospheric nitrogen—\text N_2N2N, start subscript, 2, end subscript—into biologically usable forms in a
process called nitrogen fixation. Some species of nitrogen-fixing bacteria are free-living in soil or water, while
others are beneficial symbionts that live inside of plants.
[What are some examples of nitrogen-fixing prokaryotes?]

Nitrogen-fixing microorganisms capture atmospheric nitrogen by converting it to ammonia—\text {NH}_3NH3


N, H, start subscript, 3, end subscript—which can be taken up by plants and used to make organic molecules.
The nitrogen-containing molecules are passed to animals when the plants are eaten. They may be incorporated
into the animal's body or broken down and excreted as waste, such as the urea found in urine.

Prokaryotes play several roles in the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil and within the root
nodules of some plants convert nitrogen gas in the atmosphere to ammonia. Nitrifying bacteria convert ammonia
to nitrites or nitrates. Ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates are all fixed nitrogen and can be absorbed by plants.
Denitrifying bacteria converts nitrates back to nitrogen gas.

Nitrogen doesn't remain forever in the bodies of living organisms. Instead, it's converted from organic nitrogen
back into \text N_2N2N, start subscript, 2, end subscript gas by bacteria. This process often involves several
steps in terrestrial—land—ecosystems. Nitrogenous compounds from dead organisms or wastes are converted
into ammonia—\text {NH}_3NH3N, H, start subscript, 3, end subscript—by bacteria, and the ammonia is
converted into nitrites and nitrates. In the end, the nitrates are made into \text N _2N2N, start subscript, 2, end
subscript gas by denitrifying prokaryotes.
Nitrogen cycling in marine ecosystems

So far, we’ve focused on the natural nitrogen cycle as it occurs in terrestrial ecosystems. However, generally
similar steps occur in the marine nitrogen cycle. There, the ammonification, nitrification, and denitrification
processes are performed by marine bacteria and archaea.
The illustration shows the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen gas from the atmosphere is fixed into organic nitrogen by
nitrogen-fixing bacteria. This organic nitrogen enters terrestrial food webs. It leaves the food webs as
nitrogenous wastes in the soil. Ammonification of this nitrogenous waste by bacteria and fungi in the soil
converts the organic nitrogen to ammonium ion—NH4 plus. Ammonium is converted to nitrit—NO2 minus—
then to nitrate—NO3 minus—by nitrifying bacteria. Denitrifying bacteria convert the nitrate back into nitrogen
gas, which reenters the atmosphere. Nitrogen from runoff and fertilizers enters the ocean, where it enters marine
food webs. Some organic nitrogen falls to the ocean floor as sediment. Other organic nitrogen in the ocean is
converted to nitrite and nitrate ions, which is then converted to nitrogen gas in a process analogous to the one
that occurs on land.

Some nitrogen-containing compounds fall to the ocean floor as sediment. Over long periods of time, the
sediments get compressed and form sedimentary rock. Eventually, geological uplift may move the sedimentary
rock to land. In the past, scientists did not think that this nitrogen-rich sedimentary rock was an important
nitrogen source for terrestrial ecosystems. However, a new study suggests that it may actually be quite
important—the nitrogen is released gradually to plants as the rock wears away, or weathers.^22start superscript,
2, end superscript
Nitrogen as a limiting nutrient

In natural ecosystems, many processes, such as primary production and decomposition, are limited by the
available supply of nitrogen. In other words, nitrogen is often the limiting nutrient, the nutrient that's in shortest
supply and thus limits the growth of organisms or populations.
How do we know if a nutrient is limiting? Often, this is tested as follows:^33start superscript, 3, end superscript

 When a nutrient is limiting, adding more of it will increase growth—e.g., it will cause plants to grow taller than
if nothing were added.

 If a non-limiting nutrient is instead added, it won't have an effect—e. g., plants will grow to the same height
whether the nutrient is present or absent.

For example, if we added nitrogen to half the bean plants in a garden and found that they grew taller than
untreated plants, that would suggest nitrogen was limiting. If, instead, we didn't see a difference in growth in
our experiment, that would suggest that some other nutrient than nitrogen must be limiting.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are the two most common limiting nutrients in both natural ecosystems and
agriculture. That's why, if you look at a bag of fertilizer, you will see it contains a lot of nitrogen and
phosphorous.
Human activity affects cycling of nitrogen.

We humans may not be able to fix nitrogen biologically, but we certainly do industrially! About 450 million
metric tons of fixed nitrogen are made each year using a chemical method called the Haber-Bosch process, in
which \text N_2N2N, start subscript, 2, end subscript is reacted with hydrogen—\text H_2H2H, start subscript,
2, end subscript—at high temperatures.^44start superscript, 4, end superscript Most of this fixed nitrogen goes
to make fertilizers we use on our lawns, gardens, and agricultural fields.

In general, human activity releases nitrogen into the environment by two main means: combustion of fossil
fuels and use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers in agriculture. Both processes increase levels of nitrogen-
containing compounds in the atmosphere. High levels of atmospheric nitrogen—other than \text N_2N2N, start
subscript, 2, end subscript—are associated with harmful effects, like the production of acid rain—as nitric
acid, \text{HNO}_3HNO3H, N, O, start subscript, 3, end subscript—and contributions to the greenhouse
effect—as nitrous oxide, \text N_2 \text ON2ON, start subscript, 2, end subscript, O.

Also, when artificial fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorous are used in agriculture, the excess fertilizer
may be washed into lakes, streams, and rivers by surface runoff. A major effect from fertilizer runoff is
saltwater and freshwater eutrophication. In this process, nutrient runoff causes overgrowth, or a "bloom," of
algae or other microorganisms. Without the nutrient runoff, they were limited in their growth by availability of
nitrogen or phosphorus.
Eutrophication can reduce oxygen availability in the water during the nighttime because the algae and
microorganisms that feed on them use up large quantities of oxygen in cellular respiration. This can cause the
death of other organisms living in the affected ecosystems, such as fish and shrimp, and result in low-oxygen,
species-depleted areas called dead zones.^55
Key points

 Phosphorous is an essential nutrient found in the macromolecules of humans and other organisms,
including \text{DNA}DNAD, N, A.

 The phosphorous cycle is slow. Most phosphorous in nature exists in the form of phosphate ion—\text
{PO}_4^{3-}PO43−P, O, start subscript, 4, end subscript, start superscript, 3, minus, end superscript.

 Phosphorous is often the limiting nutrient, or nutrient that is most scarce and thus limits growth, in aquatic
ecosystems.

 When nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer are carried in runoff to lakes and oceans, they can
cause eutrophication, the overgrowth of algae. The algae may deplete oxygen from the water and create a dead
zone.
Introduction

Is phosphorous important? That depends—do you like having \text{DNA}DNAD, N, A, cell membranes, or
bones in you body? Hint: The answer is probably yes!

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for living organisms. It’s a key part of nucleic acids,
like \text{DNA}DNAD, N, A and of the phospholipids that form our cell membranes. As calcium phosphate, it
also makes up the supportive components of our bones.

In nature, phosphorus is often the limiting nutrient—in other words, the nutrient that’s in shortest supply and
puts a limit on growth—and this is particularly true for aquatic, freshwater ecosystems.
Natural cycling of phosphorous

The phosphorous cycle is slow compared to other biogeochemical cycles such as the water, carbon, and
nitrogen cycles.^11start superscript, 1, end superscript

In nature, phosphorous is found mostly in the form of phosphate ions—\text {PO}_4^{3-}PO43−P, O, start
subscript, 4, end subscript, start superscript, 3, minus, end superscript. Phosphate compounds are found in
sedimentary rocks, and as the rocks weather—wear down over long time periods—the phosphorous they
contain slowly leaches into surface water and soils. Volcanic ash, aerosols, and mineral dust can also be
significant phosphate sources, though phosphorous has no real gas phase, unlike other elements such as carbon,
nitrogen, and sulfur.

Phosphate compounds in the soil can be taken up by plants and, from there, transferred to animals that eat the
plants. When plants and animals excrete wastes or die, phosphates may be taken up by detritivores or returned
to the soil. Phosphorous-containing compounds may also be carried in surface runoff to rivers, lakes, and
oceans, where they are taken up by aquatic organisms.

When phosphorous-containing compounds from the bodies or wastes of marine organisms sink to the floor of
the ocean, they form new sedimentary layers. Over long periods of time, phosphorous-containing sedimentary
rock may be moved from the ocean to the land by a geological process called uplift. However, this process is
very slow, and the average phosphate ion has an oceanic residence time—time in the ocean—of 20,000 to
100,000 years.

This illustration shows the phosphorus cycle. Phosphorus enters the atmosphere from volcanic aerosols. As this
aerosol precipitates to earth, it enters terrestrial food webs. Some of the phosphorus from terrestrial food webs
dissolves in streams and lakes, and the remainder enters the soil. Another source of phosphorus is fertilizers.
Phosphorus enters the ocean via leaching and runoff, where it becomes dissolved in ocean water or enters
marine food webs. Some phosphorus falls to the ocean floor where it becomes sediment. If uplifting occurs, this
sediment can return to land.
Eutrophication and dead zones
Most fertilizers used in agriculture—and on lawns and gardens—contain both nitrogen and phosphorous, which
may be carried to aquatic ecosystems in surface runoff. Fertilizer carried in runoff may cause excessive growth
of algae or other microbes that were previously limited by nitrogen or phosphorous. This phenomenon is
called eutrophication. At least in some cases, phosphorous, not nitrogen, seems to be the main driver of
eutrophication.^22start superscript, 2, end superscript

Why is eutrophication harmful? Some algae make water taste or smell bad or produce toxic compounds.^22start
superscript, 2, end superscript Also, when all of those algae die and are decomposed by microbes, large
amounts of oxygen are used up as their bodies are broken down. This spike in oxygen usage can sharply lower
dissolved oxygen levels in the water and may lead to death by hypoxia—lack of oxygen—for other aquatic
organisms, such as shellfish and finfish.

Regions of lakes and oceans that are depleted of oxygen due to a nutrient influx are called dead zones. The
number of dead zones has increased for several years, and more than 400 of these zones existed in 2008. One of
the worst dead zones is off the coast of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizer runoff from the
Mississippi River Basin created a dead zone of over 8,463 square miles. As you can see in the figure below,
dead zones are found in areas of high industrialization and population density around the world.

How can eutrophication be reduced or prevented? Fertilizers, phosphorous-containing detergents, and


improperly disposed of sewage can all be sources of nitrogen and phosphorous that drive eutrophication. Using
less fertilizer, eliminating phosphorous-containing detergents, and ensuring that sewage does not enter
waterways—e.g., from a leaky septic system—are all ways that individuals, companies, and governments can
help reduce eutrophication.