Taking the pulse of snowmelt: in situ sensors reveal seasonal, event and diurnal patterns of nitrate and dissolved organic matter variability in an upland forest stream
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- Pellerin, B.A., Saraceno, J.F., Shanley, J.B. et al. Biogeochemistry (2012) 108: 183. doi:10.1007/s10533-011-9589-8
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Highly resolved time series data are useful to accurately identify the timing, rate, and magnitude of solute transport in streams during hydrologically dynamic periods such as snowmelt. We used in situ optical sensors for nitrate (NO3−) and chromophoric dissolved organic matter fluorescence (FDOM) to measure surface water concentrations at 30 min intervals over the snowmelt period (March 21–May 13, 2009) at a 40.5 hectare forested watershed at Sleepers River, Vermont. We also collected discrete samples for laboratory absorbance and fluorescence as well as δ18O–NO3− isotopes to help interpret the drivers of variable NO3− and FDOM concentrations measured in situ. In situ data revealed seasonal, event and diurnal patterns associated with hydrological and biogeochemical processes regulating stream NO3− and FDOM concentrations. An observed decrease in NO3− concentrations after peak snowmelt runoff and muted response to spring rainfall was consistent with the flushing of a limited supply of NO3− (mainly from nitrification) from source areas in surficial soils. Stream FDOM concentrations were coupled with flow throughout the study period, suggesting a strong hydrologic control on DOM concentrations in the stream. However, higher FDOM concentrations per unit streamflow after snowmelt likely reflected a greater hydraulic connectivity of the stream to leachable DOM sources in upland soils. We also observed diurnal NO3− variability of 1–2 μmol l−1 after snowpack ablation, presumably due to in-stream uptake prior to leafout. A comparison of NO3− and dissolved organic carbon yields (DOC, measured by FDOM proxy) calculated from weekly discrete samples and in situ data sub-sampled daily resulted in small to moderate differences over the entire study period (−4 to 1% for NO3− and −3 to −14% for DOC), but resulted in much larger differences for daily yields (−66 to +27% for NO3− and −88 to +47% for DOC, respectively). Despite challenges inherent in in situ sensor deployments in harsh seasonal conditions, these data provide important insights into processes controlling NO3− and FDOM in streams, and will be critical for evaluating the effects of climate change on snowmelt delivery to downstream ecosystems.