Watts Up With Nitrogen Science Denial

Anthony WattsThose that are familiar with the website Watts Up With That know that some very strange content has shown up on it. A lot of it focusses on trying to discredit valid research on climate change and global warming, but in general it is also very dismissive about environmental concerns. Basically anything that can be used to cast doubt will get published, no matter how wrong or far-fetched it is.

This time Watts went after nitrogen pollution, something that is a real concern and can have serious consequences. Fertilizers contain nitrogen as it is a nutrient plants need to grow properly. But this isn’t the same nitrogen as we breathe, plants can’t absorb nitrogen gas. That’s why the nitrogen in fertilizers often is part of a compound, most commonly as NH3 or NO3. This what distinguishes nitrogen in fertilizers from the nitrogen in the air (which has the chemical formula of N2).

Using nitrogen in fertilizers in itself isn’t a problem, but for example fertilizer run off can make it a problem (especially when you use too much fertilizer). In those cases it can contaminate ground and surface water which causes problems when you want to use it as drinking water. However, the biggest problem arises from the detail that it’s a nutrient.

Higher nutrient availability in waterways can easily cause algae blooms. The waste products from these blooms can then cause a lack of oxygen as it gets used up during the break down of those waste products. Anything living in the water that relies on this oxygen then suffocates. This can kill off all life in streams and long stretches of rivers, when these nutrients reach the ocean they can cause huge dead zones. There’s not much to catch for a fisherman in those zones, and it can take some time for a region to recuperate.

NOAA: Huge Ocean Dead Zone in Gulf of Mexico (August 2013)

These dead zones occur all over the world and are a real concern for the health of local ecosystems. Which then can jeopardize a regions ability to catch fish and subsequently harm the local economy and food production. This is why it is a reason for concern and why scientists are looking into this so we learn how to prevent it.

Which brings me to what Anthony Watts has said about nitrogen. There are two instances that I’m aware of where he litterally mocks the environmental concerns surrounding nitrogen pollution. The first one I encountered was his blog post ‘Claim: ‘Dangerous’ nitrogen pollution could be halved‘ (archived here) in which he said:

Now Nitrogen, making up 78% of Earth’s atmosphere, and a requirement for many agricultural crops is given the label of “dangerous”. I’m guessing Oxygen and the “dangerous oxidation” it causes will be next.

The second instance, and what triggered me to write about this, is his blog post ‘Nitrogen as pollutant and lifegiver‘ (archived here) in which he says:

Its the same sort of nonsense argument we here [sic] for Carbon Dioxide, that while essential for all life on the planet, it is also a pollutant. I see a nitrogen tax in our future if this nutty idea takes hold.

I’ll ignore the talking point that CO2 is a plant food and therefore it’s harmless, as I already dealt with that particular one (hint: this is an oversimplification that ignores detrimental effects). So I’ll continue focussing on the mocking of the real environmental concerns surrounding too much nitrogen.

Mocking something that has visible consequences isn’t the right response. Scientists have seen the effects and have been measuring them for decades. It also hurts the economy as it causes revenue loss for the fishing industry, and any fertilizer that isn’t absorbed by crops is a loss for farmers. For them it’s literally wasted money as it doesn’t help the crops they are growing. There are also health concerns associated with pollution caused by fertilizers.

The sad thing is that all of this is either explained, or hinted at, in the articles Watts mocked. It wouldn’t take that much effort to verify that this isn’t an unsupported claim. Although I’m not surprised that Watts did this, he seems to have a knee-jerk reaction every time he encounters an environmental issue. Which then makes him reject valid science, despite overwhelming evidence. It’s also the reason why you always should take anything published on Watts’ website with a grain of salt.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.