Tall towers help us understand the atmosphere

When crossing the United States Midwest, you are surrounded by a sea of corn and soybeans. These fields cover an area larger than the entire State of California. The food, fibers, and fuels produced are a major part of the U.S. economy.

In Rosemount, you can see a huge metal tower sprouting high tech tools rising above those fields. Dr. Tim Griffis from the University of Minnesota is looking for what you can’t see - the atmospheric gas nitrous oxide (N2O).

tall tower with instrumentation rises above fields in Minnesota

To keep these fields healthy and productive, large amounts of nitrogen fertilizers are applied each year. This application to agricultural systems around the globe results in a profound increase of N2O in our atmosphere. N2O molecules stay in the atmosphere for an average of 114 years. The impact of 1 pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is almost 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide.

Dr. Giffis and his team are working to better understand the relationship between agricultural management practices, climate, and hydrology on N2O emissions.  High resolution atmospheric measurements and cutting edge modeling techniques are allowing them to identify key processes. They are working to identify hot spots in the region and forecast how changing precipitation patterns in the Upper Midwest may impact N2O emissions.

It’s critical to better understand these relationships. Given warmer temperatures and increasing precipitation, we need to design effective management practices to help mitigate N2O emissions while maintaining the productivity of the fields.  It’s a difficult challenge with a big impact on our economy and the environment.