, Volume 108, Issue 1–3, pp 183–198 | Cite as

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

  • Brian A. PellerinEmail author
  • John Franco Saraceno
  • James B. Shanley
  • Stephen D. Sebestyen
  • George R. Aiken
  • Wilfred M. Wollheim
  • Brian A. Bergamaschi


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.


Nitrate FDOM Snowmelt Forested Diurnal 



We thank Jon Denner, Ann Chalmers and Stewart Clark for field sampling and Kenna Butler for lab optical analyses. We also thank Bryan Downing, Dan Doctor, Mark Green and two anonymous reviewers for helpful discussions and comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. This work was funded by a USDA Forest Service Northeastern States Research Cooperative competitive grant, the USGS Climate Effects Network, the USGS Hydrologic Networks and Analysis Program, and the Northern Research Station of the USDA Forest Service. The use of brand names in this manuscript is for identification purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Geological Survey.

Supplementary material

10533_2011_9589_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (147 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 147 kb)


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Copyright information

© US Government 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian A. Pellerin
    • 1
    Email author
  • John Franco Saraceno
    • 1
  • James B. Shanley
    • 2
  • Stephen D. Sebestyen
    • 3
  • George R. Aiken
    • 4
  • Wilfred M. Wollheim
    • 5
  • Brian A. Bergamaschi
    • 1
  1. 1.U.S. Geological SurveySacramentoUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological SurveyMontpelierUSA
  3. 3.USDA Forest Service, Northern Research StationGrand RapidsUSA
  4. 4.U.S. Geological SurveyBoulderUSA
  5. 5.Water Systems Analysis GroupUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA

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