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Land-use and agriculture in Denmark around year 1900 and the quest for EU Water Framework Directive reference conditions in coastal waters

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The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) aims to protect the ecological status of coastal waters. To establish acceptable boundaries between good and moderate ecological status, the WFD calls for reference conditions practically undisturbed by human impact. For Denmark, the nitrogen (N) concentrations present around year 1900 have been suggested to represent reference conditions. As the N load of coastal waters relates closely to runoff from land, any reduction in load links to agricultural activity. We challenge the current use of historical N balances to establish WFD reference conditions and initiate an alternative approach based on parish-level land-use statistics collected 1896/1900 and N concentrations in root zone percolates from experiments with year 1900-relevant management. This approach may be more widely applicable for landscapes with detailed historic information on agricultural activity. Using this approach, we find an average N concentration in root zone percolates that is close to that of current agriculture. Thus, considering Danish coastal waters to be practically unaffected by human activity around year 1900 remains futile as 75% of the land area was subject to agricultural activity with a substantial potential for N loss to the environment. It appears unlikely that the ecological state of coastal waters around year 1900 may serve as WFD reference condition.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAMBIO
Volume50
Issue10
Pages (from-to)1882-1893
Number of pages12
ISSN0044-7447
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).

    Research areas

  • Abuse of N balances, Agricultural management, Coastal water eutrophication, EU water framework directive, Historic parish-level land-use

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