Nitrous Oxide Emissions in Snow-covered Agricultural Soils – manure-induced fluxes

Why Study Nitrous Oxide Emissions and Manure Application?*

It is now accepted that soil nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions occur under freezing conditions (Sommerfeld et al., 1993; Pelster et al., 2012), and that overwinter N2O emissions may represent a substantial portion of the total annual emissions from agricultural soils in northern countries (Maljanen et al., 2007; Wagner-Riddle et al., 2007; Virkajärvi et al., 2010). However, the temporal dynamics during winter are poorly documented, and the question whether manure application in the fall may increase winter N2O emissions is under debate. In addition, the possible influence of soil texture in regulating N2O emissions during winter has been overlooked. Our objective was to compare N2O emissions above the snow cover on sandy and clayey soils with and without pig slurry applied in the fall.

What did we do?

The study was carried out for three consecutive winter periods (2010-2013) on a sandy loam and a silty clay soil. Soil N2O concentration and emission were monitored weekly from November to May using soil probes and static chambers, respectively. The static chambers were made of 20-cm diameter white PVC pipe. The chamber base (15 cm height) was permanently inserted to 10 cm depth. Pig slurry was applied within half of the chamber bases (5 per soil type), whereas the other half remained unamended (Control treatment). The manure was immediately incorporated into the top 5 cm of soil using hand tools; soil in control chambers was similarly disturbed. Additional sections of PVC pipe (10 cm height) were secured on the top of each chamber base as the snowpack developed, and were removed stepwise in the spring during snowmelt. The chamber base was therefore emerging above the snow cover at time of chamber deployment. On each sampling date, the accumul ation of N2O within the chamber headspace was monitored at 6-min intervals during 18-min deployments. Soil air was also collected weekly through soil probes installed at 7.5 cm depth. Air samples were withdrawn with a syringe and transferred to pre-evacuated vials. Gas samples in vials were analyzed for N2O within 48 h using a gas chromatograph.

Title: Nitrous Oxide Emissions in Snow-covered Agricultural Soils – manure-induced fluxes

Authors and affiliations:

Martin H. Chantigny, Philippe Rochette & Denis A. Angers, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Québec;

Claudia Goyer, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Fredericton, Canada

Table 1. Range of cumulative N2O-N emission, magnitude of emissions, and emission factors measured for three consecutive winter periods.


Sandy loam


Silty clay

Cumulative emission

(kg N2O-N/ha)


0.1 to 2.0



0.6 to 1.6

Magnitude of emissions

(% of total annual emission)

32 to 67


10 to 27

Emission factor

(% N applied)

0.3 to 3.0


0.9 to 2.4

What have we learned?

Nitrous oxide was produced in soils and emitted in all years, with a low in late fall (Nov.-Dec.) and significant increases when snow depth exceeded 20 cm (late Dec. – early Jan.) and during spring thaw (late March – early April). Ice formation on and within the soil occurred during freeze-thaw events. This phenomenon generally blocked the emission of N2O but did not prevent its production in the soil. Therefore ice formation resulted in a marked decline in N2O emissions with concurrent increase in soil N2O concentration. The temporal dynamics of N2O emissions was variable among years, and the significance of manure-induced N2O emissions was mainly explained by early winter frost penetration, which was dependent on snow accumulation in late fall. As opposed to N2O emissions measured during the growing season, sandy soils tended to emit as much N2O as clayey soils during the non-growing season. Consequently, the cumulative N2O-N emi ssions in the non-growing season (November-April) accounted for 10 to 25% of total annual emissions in clayey soils, and from 20 to 70% in sandy soils (Table 1). Soils amended with pig slurry in the fall emitted more N2O than soils without, with emissions factors up to 3%, higher than the default IPCC coefficient (1%).


Maljanen M., Kohonen, A.R., Virkajärvi P., Martikainen P.J. 2007. Fluxes and production of N2O, CO2 and CH4 in boreal agricultural soil during winter as affected by snow cover. Tellus, Series B: Chem. Phys. Meteor. 59, 853-859.

Pelster, D.E., Chantigny, M.H., Rochette, P., Angers, D.A., Laganière, J., Zebarth, B., Goyer, C. 2012. Crop residue incorporation alters soil nitrous oxide emissions during freeze-thaw cycles. Can. J. Soil Sci. 93:415-425.

Sommerfeld, R.A., Mosier, A.R., Musselman, R.C. 1993. CO2, CH4, and N2O flux through a Wyoming snowpack and implications for global budgets. Nature 361:140-142.

Virkajärvi P., Maljanen M., Saarijarvi K., Haapala J., Martikainen P.J. 2010. N2O emissions from boreal grass and grass-clover pasture soils. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 137, 59-67.

Wagner-Riddle, C., Furon, A., McLaughlin, N. L., Lee, I., Barbeau, J., Jayasundara, S., Parkin, G., von Bertoldi, B., Warland, J. 2007. Intensive measurement of nitrous oxide emissions from a corn-soybean-wheat rotation under two contrasting management systems over 5 years. Global Change Biol. 13:1722-1736.

Future Plans

Now that we evidenced the significance of N2O emissions from soils during the winter period, we are initiating field work to determine best practices for fall application of manure (e.g. early vs. late fall application; use of additives to delay nitrification of manure ammonia) that will mitigate losses and help efficiently transferring applied N to crop in the next spring.


Martin H. Chantigny, Soil Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Quebec

Philippe Rochette, Denis A. Angers, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Québec;

Additional information

Scientific papers and reports can be accessed through my webpage:


This project was financially supported by the Sustainable AGriculture Environmental Systems (SAGES) Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

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