Groundwater nitrate response to sustainable nitrogen management

Birgitte Hansen, Lærke Thorling, Jörg Schullehner, Mette Termansen, Tommy Dalgaard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

130 Citations (Scopus)


Throughout the world, nitrogen (N) losses from intensive agricultural production may end up as undesirably high concentrations of nitrate in groundwater with a long-term impact on groundwater quality. This has human and environmental health consequences, due to the use of groundwater as a drinking water resource, and causes eutrophication of groundwater-dependent ecosystems such as wetlands, rivers and near-coastal areas. At national scale, the measured nitrate concentrations and trends in Danish oxic groundwater in the last 70 years correlate well with the annual agricultural N surpluses. We also show that the N use efficiency of agriculture is related to the groundwater nitrate concentrations. We demonstrate an inverted U-shape of annual nitrate concentrations as a function of economic growth from 1948 to 2014. Our analyses evidence a clear trend of a reversal at the beginning of the 1980s towards a more sustainable agricultural N management. This appears to be primarily driven by societal demand for groundwater protection linked to economic prosperity and an increased environmental awareness. However, the environmental and human health thresholds are still exceeded in many locations. Groundwater protection is of fundamental global importance, and this calls for further development of environmentally and economically sustainable N management in agriculture worldwide.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8566
Number of pages12
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017

Programme Area

  • Programme Area 2: Water Resources


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