Mean age distribution of inorganic soil-nitrogen

Dong K. Woo, Praveen Kumar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Excess reactive nitrogen in soils of intensively managed landscapes causes adverse environmental impact, and continues to remain a global concern. Many novel strategies have been developed to provide better management practices and, yet, the problem remains unresolved. The objective of this study is to develop a model to characterize the “age” of inorganic soil-nitrogen (nitrate, and ammonia/ammonium). We use the general theory of age, which provides an assessment of the time elapsed since inorganic nitrogen has been introduced into the soil system. We analyze a corn-corn-soybean rotation, common in the Midwest United States, as an example application. We observe two counter-intuitive results: (1) the mean nitrogen age in the topsoil layer is relatively high; and (2) mean nitrogen age is lower under soybean cultivation compared to corn although no fertilizer is applied for soybean cultivation. The first result can be explained by cation-exchange of ammonium that retards the leaching of nitrogen, resulting in an increase in the mean nitrogen age near the soil surface. The second result arises because the soybean utilizes the nitrogen fertilizer left from the previous year, thereby removing the older nitrogen and reducing mean nitrogen age. Estimating the mean nitrogen age can thus serve as an important tool to disentangle complex nitrogen dynamics by providing a nuanced characterization of the time scales of soil-nitrogen transformation and transport processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5516-5536
Number of pages21
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016


  • nitrogen dynamics
  • nitrogen residence time
  • soil-nitrogen age

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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