Couldn't find element LayerAd

Error finding content

The Nitrogen Cycle - Windows to the Universe

Shop Windows to the Universe

With Explore the Planets, investigate the planets, their moons, and understand the processes that shape them. By G. Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.
This illustration shows the general pathways of nitrogen through the biological and physical components of the Earth system.
Click on image for full size
NCAR

The Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrogen is an element that is found in both the living portion of our planet and the inorganic parts of the Earth system. The nitrogen cycle is one of the biogeochemical cycles and is very important for ecosystems. Nitrogen moves slowly through the cycle and is stored in reservoirs such as the atmosphere, living organisms, soils, and oceans along its way.

Most of the nitrogen on Earth is in the atmosphere. Approximately 80% of the molecules in Earth's atmosphere are made of two nitrogen atoms bonded together (N2). All plants and animals need nitrogen to make amino acids, proteins and DNA, but the nitrogen in the atmosphere is not in a form that they can use. The molecules of nitrogen in the atmosphere can become usable for living things when they are broken apart during lightning strikes or fires, by certain types of bacteria, or by bacteria associated with legume plants. Other plants get the nitrogen they need from the soils or water in which they live mostly in the form of inorganic nitrate (NO3-). Nitrogen is a limiting factor for plant growth. Animals get the nitrogen they need by consuming plants or other animals that contain organic molecules composed partially of nitrogen. When organisms die, their bodies decompose bringing the nitrogen into soil on land or into the oceans. As dead plants and animals decompose, nitrogen is converted into inorganic forms such as ammonium salts (NH4+ ) by a process called mineralization. The ammonium salts are absorbed onto clay in the soil and then chemically altered by bacteria into nitrite (NO2-) and then nitrate (NO3- ). Nitrate is the form commonly used by plants. It is easily dissolved in water and leached from the soil system. Dissolved nitrate can be returned to the atmosphere by certain bacteria in a process called denitrification.

Certain actions of humans are causing changes to the nitrogen cycle and the amount of nitrogen that is stored in reservoirs. The use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers can cause nutrient loading in nearby waterways as nitrates from the fertilizer wash into streams and ponds. The increased nitrate levels cause plants to grow rapidly until they use up the nitrate supply and die. The number of herbivores will increase when the plant supply increases and then the herbivores are left without a food source when the plants die. In this way, changes in nutrient supply will affect the entire food chain. Additionally, humans are altering the nitrogen cycle by burning fossil fuels and forests, which releases various solid forms of nitrogen. Farming also affects the nitrogen cycle. The waste associated with livestock farming releases a large amount of nitrogen into soil and water. In the same way, sewage waste adds nitrogen to soils and water.

Last modified May 7, 2007 by Lisa Gardiner.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

"Science, Evolution, and Creationism", by the National Academies, provides fascinating background on these topics for all, and is particularly useful for the Earth and space science classroom. Check our other books in our online store.

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

The Periodic Table of the Elements

Everything you see around you is made of tiny particles called atoms, but not all atoms are the same. Different combinations of protons , neutrons and electrons make different types of atoms and these...more

Biomes and Ecosystems

Biomes are large regions of the world with similar plants, animals, and other living things that are adapted to the climate and other conditions. Explore the links below to learn more about some of the...more

Changing the Nitrogen Cycle, Changing the Planet

Look up into the sky and you look through millions of air molecules, eighty percent of which are nitrogen molecules, two atoms of nitrogen bonded together. Nitrogen is found all over the planet, not just...more

Nitric Acid - HNO3

Nitric acid is a colorless, corrosive liquid and a toxic acid which can cause severe burns. Nitric acid consists of nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms. Nitric acid, in its gas phase, is present in very...more

Ammonia - NH3

Ammonia is a chemical compound that is a colorless, flammable gas at normal temperatures and pressures. Ammonia is toxic, corrosive to some materials, and has a pungent odor. An ammonia molecule (NH3)...more

Chemistry

Chemistry is the study of matter, energy, and their interactions. Chemists study the composition of substances, their properties, and how they react with each other under varying circumstances. Indeed,...more

Atmospheric Chemistry of Earth's Troposphere

Chemistry plays an influential role in the behavior of the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere, the troposphere. The various gases in the troposphere are constantly mixing with and reacting with each other....more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF