Aquatic Sciences

, Volume 71, Issue 2, pp 228–237 | Cite as

Nitrogen transformation processes in the Elbe River: Distinguishing between assimilation and denitrification by means of stable isotope ratios in nitrate

  • Barbara DeutschEmail author
  • Maren Voss
  • Helmut Fischer
Research Article


During a 9-day Lagrangian sampling campaign along the free-flowing section of the Elbe River in July 2005, water from the river as well as from major tributaries and sewage treatment plants was sampled to investigate major nitrogen transformation processes, focussing on denitrification and N-assimilation by phytoplankton. Samples were analysed for \(\delta^{15}N - NO^{-}_{3}\), \(\delta^{18}O - NO^{-}_{3}\), \(\delta^{15}N - NH^{+}_{4}\), nutrient concentrations, chlorophyll a (Chl a), and particulate organic matter. A strong decrease in nitrate concentration accompanied by strong increases in Chl a, particulate organic carbon (POC) and δ15N- and \(\delta^{18}O - NO^{-}_{3}\) values were measured along the river. The ratio of the increase in δ15N vs. δ18O of the river nitrate samples was 0.89:1. Together with the observed decrease in nitrate and the increase in Chl a and POC, this indicates a major role of nitrogen assimilation by phytoplankton. This finding is supported by budget calculations, while nitrate inputs from the sampled tributaries and from sewage treatment plants were of minor importance for the nitrogen budget of the Elbe River. The stable isotope analysis of nitrogen and oxygen in nitrate is shown to be a powerful tool for the identification of N transformation processes along large rivers, particularly if combined with Lagrangian measurements of algal biomass, and dissolved and particulate nutrient concentrations.


Elbe Nitrogen δ15N, δ18O denitrification N-assimilation 


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Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research WarnemündeRostockGermany
  2. 2.Federal Institute of HydrologyKoblenzGermany

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