Emissions of anthropogenic nitrogen (N) to the atmosphere have increased tenfold since preindustrial times, resulting in increased N deposition to terrestrial and coastal ecosystems.
The sources of N deposition to the ocean, however, are poorly understood. Two years of event-based rainwater samples were collected on the island of Bermuda in the western North Atlantic, which experiences both continent- and ocean-influenced air masses. The rainwater ammonium concentration ranged from 0.36 to 24.6 μM, and the ammonium δ15N from −12.5 to 0.7‰; and neither has a strong relationship with air mass history (6.0 ± 4.2 μM, −4.1 ± 2.6‰ in marine air masses and 5.9 ± 3.2 μM, −5.8 ± 2.5‰ in continental air masses; numerical average ± standard deviation).
A simple box model suggests that the ocean can account for the concentration and isotopic composition of ammonium in marine rainwater, consistent with the lack of correlation between ammonium δ15N and air mass history. If so, ammonium deposition reflects the cycling of N between the ocean and the atmosphere, rather than representing a net input to the ocean. The δ15N data appear to require that most of the ammonium/a flux to the ocean is by dissolution in surface waters rather than atmospheric deposition. This suggests that the atmosphere and surface ocean are near equilibrium with respect to air/sea gas exchange, implying that anthropogenic ammonia will equilibrate near the coast and not reach the open marine atmosphere. Whereas ~90% of the ammonium deposition to the global ocean has previously been attributed to anthropogenic sources, the evidence at Bermuda suggests that the anthropogenic contribution could be much smaller.