Two very similar expressions for δ15N are in wide use in hydrology. Both have the form ‰ (‰ = permil or parts per thousand) where s and a are the relative abundances of 15N in respectively the sample and the atmosphere. The difference is whether the relative abundance is with respect to all the nitrogen, i.e. 14N plus 15N, or just to 14N. Since the atmosphere is 99.6337% 14N and 0.3663% 15N, a is 0.003663 in the former case and 0.003663/0.996337 = 0.003676 in the latter. However s varies similarly; for example if in the sample 15N is 0.385% and 14N is 99.615%, s is 0.003850 in the former case and 0.00385/0.99615 = 0.003865 in the latter. The value of is then 51.05‰ in the former case and 51.38‰ in the latter, an insignificant difference in practice given the typical range of -20 to 80 for δ15N.
One use of 15N is as a tracer to determine the path taken by fertilizers applied to anything from pots to landscapes. Fertilizer enriched in 15N to an extent significantly different from that prevailing in the soil (which may be different from the atmospheric standard a) is applied at a point and other points are then monitored for variations in δ15N.
Another application is the assessment of human waste water discharge into bodies of water. The abundance of 15N is greater in human waste water than in natural water sources. Hence δ15N in benthic sediment gives an indication of the contribution of human waste to the total nitrogen in the sediment. Sediment cores analyzed for δ15N yield an historical record of such waste, with older samples at greater depths.
δ15N is also used to measure food chain length and the trophic level of a given organism; high δ15N values are positively correlated with higher trophic levels; likewise, organisms low on the food chain generally exhibit lower δ15N values. Higher δ15N values in apex predators generally indicate longer food chains.
- Katzenberg, MA (2008). "Chapter 13: Stable Isotope Analysis: A Tool for Studying Past Diet, Demography, and Life History". Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton (2nd ed.). Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-79372-4.
- Bedard-Haughn, A. (2003). "Tracing δ15N through landscapes: potential uses and precautions". Journal of Hydrology. 272 (1–4): 175–190. Bibcode:2003JHyd..272..175B. doi:10.1016/S0022-1694(02)00263-9.
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- Perkins, Matthew J.; McDonald, Robbie A.; Van Veen, F. J. Frank; Kelly, Simon D.; Rees, Gareth; Bearhop, Stuart (27 March 2014). "Application of Nitrogen and Carbon Stable Isotopes (δ15N and δ13C) to Quantify Food Chain Length and Trophic Structure". PLOS One. 9 (3): e93281. Bibcode:2014PLoSO...993281P. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093281. PMC 3968125. PMID 24676331.