Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 16, Issue 6, pp 714–726

Humic substances—part 7: the biogeochemistry of dissolved organic carbon and its interactions with climate change

  • Petr Porcal
  • Jean-François Koprivnjak
  • Lewis A. Molot
  • Peter J. Dillon

DOI: 10.1007/s11356-009-0176-7

Cite this article as:
Porcal, P., Koprivnjak, JF., Molot, L.A. et al. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2009) 16: 714. doi:10.1007/s11356-009-0176-7


Background, aim, and scope

Dissolved organic matter, measured as dissolved organic carbon (DOC), is an important component of aquatic ecosystems and of the global carbon cycle. It is known that changes in DOC quality and quantity are likely to have ecological repercussions. This review has four goals: (1) to discuss potential mechanisms responsible for recent changes in aquatic DOC concentrations; (2) to provide a comprehensive overview of the interactions between DOC, nutrients, and trace metals in mainly boreal environments; (3) to explore the impact of climate change on DOC and the subsequent effects on nutrients and trace metals; and (4) to explore the potential impact of DOC cycling on climate change.

Main features

We review recent research on the mechanisms responsible for recent changes in aquatic DOC concentrations, DOC interactions with trace metals, N, and P, and on the possible impacts of climate change on DOC in mainly boreal lakes. We then speculate on how climate change may affect DOC export and in-lake processing and how these changes might alter nutrient and metal export and processing. Furthermore, the potential impacts of changing DOC cycling patterns on climate change are examined.


It has been noted that DOC concentrations in lake and stream waters have increased during the last 30 years across much of Europe and North America. The potential reasons for this increase include increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, climate warming, continued N deposition, decreased sulfate deposition, and hydrological changes due to increased precipitation, droughts, and land use changes. Any change in DOC concentrations and properties in lakes and streams will also impact the acid–base chemistry of these waters and, presumably, the biological, chemical, and photochemical reactions taking place. For example, the interaction of trace metals with DOC may be significantly altered by climate change as organically complexed metals such as Cu, Fe, and Al are released during photo-oxidation of DOC. The production and loss of DOC as CO2 from boreal lakes may also be affected by changing climate. Climate change is unlikely to be uniform spatially with some regions becoming wetter while others become drier. As a result, rates of change in DOC export and concentrations will vary regionally and the changes may be non-linear.


Climate change models predict that higher temperatures are likely to occur over most of the boreal forests in North America, Europe, and Asia over the next century. Climate change is also expected to affect the severity and frequency of storm and drought events. Two general climate scenarios emerge with which to examine possible DOC trends: warmer and wetter or warmer and drier. Increasing temperature and hydrological changes (specifically, runoff) are likely to lead to changes in the quality and quantity of DOC export from terrestrial sources to rivers and lakes as well as changes in DOC processing rates in lakes. This will alter the quality and concentrations of DOC and its constituents as well as its interactions with trace metals and the availability of nutrients. In addition, export rates of nutrients and metals will also change in response to changing runoff. Processing of DOC within lakes may impact climate depending on the extent to which DOC is mineralized to dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and evaded to the atmosphere or settles as particulate organic carbon (POC) to bottom sediments and thereby remaining in the lake. The partitioning of DOC between sediments and the atmosphere is a function of pH. Decreased DOC concentrations may also limit the burial of sulfate, as FeS, in lake sediments, thereby contributing acidity to the water by increasing the formation of H2S. Under a warmer and drier scenario, if lake water levels fall, previously stored organic sediments may be exposed to greater aeration which would lead to greater CO2 evasion to the atmosphere. The interaction of trace metals with DOC may be significantly altered by climate change. Iron enhances the formation of POC during irradiation of lake water with UV light and therefore may be an important pathway for transfer of allochthonous DOC to the sediments. Therefore, changing Fe/DOC ratios could affect POC formation rates. If climate change results in altered DOC chemistry (e.g., fewer and/or weaker binding sites) more trace metals could be present in their toxic and bioavailable forms. The availability of nutrients may be significantly altered by climate change. Decreased DOC concentrations in lakes may result in increased Fe colloid formation and co-incident loss of adsorbable P from the water column.


Climate change expressed as changes in runoff and temperature will likely result in changes in aquatic DOC quality and concentration with concomitant effects on trace metals and nutrients. Changes in the quality and concentration of DOC have implications for acid–base chemistry and for the speciation and bioavailability of certain trace metals and nutrients. Moreover, changes in DOC, metals, and nutrients are likely to drive changes in rates of C evasion and storage in lake sediments.

Recommendations and perspectives

The key controls on allochthonous DOC quality, quantity, and catchment export in response to climate change are still not fully understood. More detailed knowledge of these processes is required so that changes in DOC and its interactions with nutrients and trace metals can be better predicted based on changes caused by changing climate. More studies are needed concerning the effects of trace metals on DOC, the effects of changing DOC quality and quantity on trace metals and nutrients, and how runoff and temperature-related changes in DOC export affect metal and nutrient export to rivers and lakes.


Dissolved organic carbon (DOC)BiogeochemistryClimate changeNutrientsTrace metals

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Petr Porcal
    • 1
  • Jean-François Koprivnjak
    • 1
  • Lewis A. Molot
    • 2
  • Peter J. Dillon
    • 1
  1. 1.Environment and Resource StudiesTrent UniversityPeterboroughCanada
  2. 2.Faculty of Environmental StudiesYork UniversityTorontoCanada