Combining measurements, modeling and machine learning to improve N2O accounting for sustainable agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa

July 1, 2022
In Progress
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Fertiliser use in sub-Saharan Africa is currently low, which results in lower agricultural crop yields than in many developed nations. In the coming decades, fertilizer use is predicted to increase, in order to drive increasing agricultural productivity. If fertilizer application is carefully controlled, emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture soils can be minimized while ensuring high productivity and food security: Climate smart agriculture. The success of climate-smart agricultural practices depends on detailed knowledge of nutrient cycles in soils.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a strong greenhouse gas which makes a large contribution to global warming. In addition, it is the most important substance currently released that contributes to destruction of the ozone layer. N2O is produced by microbes in soils as they use nitrogen in two key biochemical reactions: Nitrification and denitrification. Agricultural fertilisation increases the amount of nitrogen available in soils, which leads to larger emissions of N2O. N2O emissions have primarily been studied in temperate ecosystems, but the causes and magnitude of emissions in sub-Saharan Africa are not well known. Expected changes in N2O emissions due to climate change and increasing fertilizer use are very poorly constrained, making it particularly difficult to drive investment in climate-smart agriculture in this region.

In this project, we will use a novel measurement technique – laser spectroscopy – to study N2O emissions from agricultural soils in Kenya. Laser spectroscopy allows us to directly monitor the isotopic composition of N2O emitted from soils, and thus infer the microbial N2O production and consumption pathways occurring in the soils. We will monitor N2O emissions and isotopic composition through a dry-wet seasonal transition to understand how climate and soil moisture control the production of N2O. We will relate our results to observations of N2O emissions made at other sites in sub-Saharan Africa, and use machine learning techniques to develop a new model of N2O emissions. This will allow us to understand and predict emissions and thus contribution to the development and uptake of sustainable agricultural practices.



SDSC Team:
Eliza Harris
Phillip Agredazywczuk
Ouma Turry

PI | Partners:

ETH Zurich, Sustainable Agroecosystems:

  • Prof. Johan Six
  • Dr. Matti Barthel

More info

University of Eldoret, Kenya:

  • Dr. Abigail Otinga
  • Dr. Ruth Njoroge

More info

International Livestock Research Institute:

  • Dr. Sonja Leitner

More info



Measurements of greenhouse gases such as N2O in sub-Saharan Africa are sparse, leading to poor greenhouse gas accounting and a lack of investment in sustainable agriculture. Moreover, drivers of N2O emissions in tropical soils are poorly known, making it difficult to accurately predict emissions in a changing climate.

Proposed Approach / Solution

In N2O-SSA, we will use a combined measurement-data science-modelling approach to understand drivers of soil N2O emissions, in particular the influence of precipitation and soil moisture, and thus make improved predictions of N2O emission strength and variability in the coming decades.

Specific project goals include:

  • Develop TREX-QCLAS-chamber system for high precision monitor of N2O fluxes and emitted N2O isotopic composition from soils
  • Conduct a 6-month measurement campaign in Eldoret, Kenya, to understand soil N2O sources and sinks across a dry-wet seasonal transition
  • Compile N2O flux and isotope data from studies in sub-Saharan Africa and other tropical regions, and - in combination with campaign measurements - analyse data to understand drivers of N2O production and consumption
  • Use data science approaches for modelling and spatiotemporal upscaling, in order to predict future emissions and promote the development of targeted mitigation strategies


These results will help us understand and predict N2O emissions under current and future management and climate, and thus identify potential avenues of sustainable agricultural development.

Figure 1: Top left: Marking out plots at the experimental farm site, Outreach and International Students Centre, University of Eldoret in preparation for the 2024 field campaign (© Eliza Harris). Top right: The Picarro system is up and running in the measurement trailer, measuring greenhouse gas fluxes from the chambers (© Turry Ouma). Bottom left: The measurement trailer and chambers at the site in Eldoret (© Turry Ouma). Bottom right: Planting maize at the site, a staple crop in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa (© Phillip Agredazywczuk)



Additional resources


  1. Harris et al. (2022) Warming and redistribution of nitrogen inputs drive an increase in terrestrial nitrous oxide emission factor, Nature Communications, doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-32001-z
  2. Barthel et al. (2022) Low N2O and variable CH4 fluxes from tropical forest soils of the Congo Basin, Nature Communications, doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-27978-6
  3. Harris et al. (2021) Denitrifying pathways dominate nitrous oxide emissions from managed grassland during drought and rewetting, Science Advances, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abb7118


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