Land use mediates riverine nitrogen export under the dominant influence of human activities

Binhui Chen, Scott X. Chang, Shu Kee Lam, Jan Willem Erisman, Baojing Gu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Riverine nitrogen (N) export is a crucial process that links upstream and downstream ecosystems and coastal zones. However, the driving forces of riverine N export that is closely related to water N pollution are still not well understood. In this study, we used a mass balance approach to quantify the sources of N discharge and analyzed the effect of land use composition on riverine N export, taking Zhejiang Province, China as a case study. We found that the total reactive N discharge to rivers in Zhejiang increased from 0.22 to 0.26 Tg yr-1 from 2000 to 2015. At the watershed scale, our estimate of N export agrees well with the monitored riverine N concentration in the eight major watersheds in Zhejiang. Direct discharge of domestic wastewater and effluents from wastewater treatment plants are dominant sources of riverine N export, followed by agricultural non-point sources. Although riverine N export increases with the increasing proportion of urban and agricultural land uses, we did not find any relationship between land use change and changes in riverine N export. This suggests that the dominant factor affecting riverine N export should be human activities (e.g. wastewater discharge and fertilization level), while land use only mediates riverine N export.

Original languageEnglish
Article number094018
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 18 Sep 2017


  • buffer zone
  • human activities
  • land use change
  • mass balance
  • scale effect
  • source apportionment


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