Climate variability and extremes, interacting with nitrogen storage, amplify eutrophication risk

Minjin Lee, Elena Shevliakova, Sergey Malyshev, P. C.D. Milly, Peter R. Jaffe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Despite 30 years of basin-wide nutrient-reduction efforts, severe hypoxia continues to be observed in the Chesapeake Bay. Here we demonstrate the critical influence of climate variability, interacting with accumulated nitrogen (N) over multidecades, on Susquehanna River dissolved nitrogen (DN) loads, known precursors of the hypoxia in the Bay. We used the process model LM3-TAN (Terrestrial and Aquatic Nitrogen), which is capable of capturing both seasonal and decadal-to-century changes in vegetation-soil-river N storage, and produced nine scenarios of DN-load distributions under different short-term scenarios of climate variability and extremes. We illustrate that after 1 to 3 yearlong dry spells, the likelihood of exceeding a threshold DN load (56 kt yr−1) increases by 40 to 65% due to flushing of N accumulated throughout the dry spells and altered microbial processes. Our analyses suggest that possible future increases in climate variability/extremes—specifically, high precipitation occurring after multiyear dry spells—could likely lead to high DN-load anomalies and hypoxia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7520-7528
Number of pages9
JournalGeophysical Research Letters
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 28 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


  • Chesapeake Bay
  • climate variability
  • dry spells
  • nitrogen storage
  • nitrogen-load anomalies
  • watershed modeling


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