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Monitoring screen of the computer piloting the Phenoarch platform. © INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian

Modelling and agrosystems

NitroScape: working at the landscape level to model the nitrogen cascade

NitroScape is an integrated modelling tool that simulates at landscape level the entire nitrogen transfer and transformation process. The most effective scale for developing nitrogen mitigation strategies is landscape level.

By Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemann, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 06/20/2017
Published on 05/30/2013

The landscape level is key

Since the middle of the twentieth century, agricultural production has risen sharply because of the increased supply of nitrogen to crops through the use of mineral fertilisers. This has been accompanied by significant amounts of reactive nitrogen runoff (NH3, NO3-, NOx, N2O). The result has been a cascade of transfers from agricultural systems to other environmental compartments, such as to the atmosphere, to the hydrosphere, and to other ecosystems. Nitrogen runoff has a number of effects: it lowers air quality with a negative impact to human health; it acidifies soil (NH3); nitrate pollution can make aquatic environments and coastal areas eutrophic (NO3-); and it contributes to global warming (N2O).

A major challenge for agriculture is to develop strategies to reduce runoff while maintaining agricultural production capacity. Ranging from a few square kilometres to a few dozen square kilometres, the agricultural landscape scale is particularly important for meeting this challenge. This is the level where farmers manage nitrogen inputs for their crops. Landscape mosaics are also the site of atmospheric and hydrologic nitrogen transfer between landscape elements, and are where the first impacts to natural ecosystems are seen, or where subsequent nitrogen conversion takes place, for example through indirect N2O emissions.

Using NitroScape to model nitrogen transfers and transformations

The NitroScape model simulates the entire nitrogen transfer and transformation process taking place at landscape scale. It takes account of landscape diversity, of the array of farm structures, and of nitrogen management practices in agricultural operations. It was developed as a part of the European Union’s NitroEurope project (The nitrogen cycle and its influence on the European greenhouse gas balance, 2006–2011).

NitroScape brings together a number of models portraying the major transfer and transformation processes: nitrogen management practices in agricultural operations, particularly those associated with livestock; vertical transfers and transformations of nitrogen through biophysicochemical processes in agroecosystems (CERES-EGC model, INRA Versailles-Grignon); and lateral transfers of nitrogen between agroecosystems through atmospheric pathways (OPS model, National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Netherlands) and hydrologic pathways (TNT model, INRA Rennes).

Simulations in NitroScape use a spatially explicit description of a landscape measuring a few square kilometres. Fluxes are simulated on a day-to-day basis for one crop cycle or for several years. Models are coupled in NitroScape with the aid of the PALM coupling software from the European Centre for Research and Advanced Training in Scientific Computation (CERFACS) in Toulouse, France.

NitroScape is able to analyse nitrogen fluxes and spatial interactions among landscape elements, and to evaluate the contribution of each pathway to emissions and to nitrogen balances. NitroScape was able to estimate that approximately 21% of total N2O emissions in the simple virtual landscape were from indirect N2O emissions.

Using NitroScape for nitrogen emission mitigation

Using research data from NitroEurope’s six landscape sites, which include the Environment Research Observatory’s Response Time in Agrohydrosystems site in Brittany, NitroScape could be used with the twin aims of:

  • assessing at landscape scale the biases related to intra-grid variability in regional atmospheric transfer models (EU ÉCLAIRE project - Effects of Climate Change on Air Pollution and Response Strategies for European Ecosystems, 2011–2015);
  • estimating the impact of changing crop practices, of changing crop systems, and of changing landscape management strategies on nitrogen fluxes and runoff in the environment (French ESCAPADE project - Assessing Scenarios on the Nitrogen Cascade in Rural Landscapes and Territorial Modelling, 2013–2017).

In the future, NitroScape could be used to identify measures for mitigating reactive nitrogen emissions. These could complement existing measures carried out at plot and at farm scale.


Drouet J-L. et al. 2012. Modelling the contribution of short-range atmospheric and hydrological transfers to nitrogen fluxes, budgets and indirect emissions in rural landscapes. Biogeosciences 9: 1647.

Nitrogen, inert or reactive

The atmosphere is 78% inert N2 nitrogen that cannot be used by most living things.

Some soil microorganisms are able to convert inert nitrogen into ammonium (NH4+). These microorganisms may have symbiotic relationships with plants. Chemical and biochemical transformations by living organisms together with other processes convert the nitrogen to its oxidised forms: nitric oxide, NO; nitrogen dioxide, NO2; nitrous oxide, N2O-; nitrite, NO2-; and nitrate NO3-. In addition to these mineral forms of nitrogen, there are also organic forms – urea, amines, and proteins – and together they are known as reactive nitrogen.