The impact of accelerating land-use change on the N-cycle of tropical aquatic ecosystems: Current conditions and projected changes

J. A. Downing, M. McClain, R. Twilley, J. M. Melack, James Elser, N. N. Rabalais, W. M. Lewis, R. E. Turner, J. Corredor, D. Soto, A. Yanez-Arancibia, J. A. Kopaska, R. W. Howarth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

200 Scopus citations


Published data and analyses from temperate and tropical aquatic systems are used to summarize knowledge about the potential impact of land-use alteration on the nitrogen biogeochemistry of tropical aquatic ecosystems, identify important patterns and recommend key needs for research. The tropical N-cycle is traced from pre-disturbance conditions through the phases of disturbance, highlighting major differences between tropical and temperate systems that might influence development strategies in the tropics. Analyses suggest that tropical freshwaters are more frequently N-limited than temperate zones, while tropical marine systems may show more frequent P limitation. These analyses indicate that disturbances to pristine tropical lands will lead to greatly increased primary production in freshwaters and large changes in tropical freshwater communities. Increased freshwater nutrient flux will also lead to an expansion of the high production, N- and light-limited zones around river deltas, a switch from P- to N-limitation in calcareous marine systems, with large changes in the community composition of fragile mangrove and reef systems. Key information gaps are highlighted, including data on mechanisms of nutrient transport and atmospheric deposition in the tropics, nutrient and material retention capacities of tropical impoundments, and N/P coupling and stoichiometric impacts of nutrient supplies on tropical aquatic communities. The current base of biogeochemical data suggests that alterations in the N-cycle will have greater impacts on tropical aquatic ecosystems than those already observed in the temperate zone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)109-148
Number of pages40
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - 1999


  • Estuaries
  • Lakes
  • Marine
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Rivers
  • Streams
  • Temperate
  • Tropics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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