Publication Details

Paton-Walsh, C., Wilson, S. R., Naylor, T., Griffith, D. W. T. & Denmead, O. T. (2011). Transport of NOX emissions from sugarcane fertilisation into the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon. Environmental Modeling and Assessment, 16 (5), 441-452.


The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area contains highly sensitive ecosystems that are threatened by the effects of anthropogenic activity including eutrophication. The nearby sugarcane plantations of tropical north Queensland are fertilised annually and there has been ongoing concern about the magnitude of the loss of applied nitrogen to the environment. Previous studies have considered the potential of rainwater run-off to deposit reactive nitrogen species into rivers and ultimately into the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon, but have neglected the possibility of transport via the atmosphere. This paper reports the results of a modelling study commissioned by Australia’s National Heritage Trust aimed at assessing whether or not atmospheric deposition of reactive nitrogen from Queensland’s sugarcane plantations posed a potential threat to the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon. Atmospheric dispersion modelling was undertaken using The Air Pollution Model, developed by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Despite the predominance of onshore southeasterly winds, the dispersion model results indicate that 9% of the time during the sugarcane fertilization season (in the modeled years 2001–2006) the meteorological conditions resulted in emissions from the coastal regions of north Queensland being transported out over the ocean around the Great Barrier Reef. The results suggest that there may be a greater efficiency for transport out over the reef during October than for November and December. For the 2 months that exhibited the greatest potential for transport of coastal pollution to the Great Barrier Reef, the modeled deposition of nitrogen oxides (NOX) into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon was less than 1% of the total emissions from the sugarcane plantations, but was not zero. Our model has a simple chemical scheme that does not cover the full chemistry of all reactive nitrogen compounds and so the results are only indicative of the potential levels of deposition. Nevertheless, our study shows that small amounts of NOX that originate from sugarcane fertilization may be transported and dry deposited into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. Other pathways not included in the modeling scheme may provide a more efficient transport mechanism. Whilst modern practices for the application of fertilizer to sugarcane plantations have drastically reduced emissions, the potential efficiency of transport of pollutants via the atmosphere may be of concern for other more highly polluting agricultural industries.



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