, Volume 117, Issue 2–3, pp 413–430 | Cite as

Thawing glacial and permafrost features contribute to nitrogen export from Green Lakes Valley, Colorado Front Range, USA

  • Rebecca T. BarnesEmail author
  • Mark W. Williams
  • Jordan N. Parman
  • Ken Hill
  • Nel Caine


Alpine ecosystems are particularly susceptible to disturbance due to their short growing seasons, sparse vegetation and thin soils. Increased nitrogen deposition in wetfall and changes in climate currently affect Green Lakes Valley within the Colorado Front Range. Research conducted within the alpine links chronic nitrogen inputs to a suite of ecological impacts, resulting in increased nitrate export. The atmospheric nitrogen flux decreased by 0.56 kg ha−1 year−1 between 2000 and 2009, due to decreased precipitation; however alpine nitrate yields increased by 40 % relative to the previous decade (1990–1999). Long term trends indicate that weathering products such as sulfate, calcium, and silica have also increased over the same period. The geochemical composition of thawing permafrost, as indicated by rock glacial and blockfield meltwater, suggests it is the source of these weathering products. Furthermore, mass balance models indicate the high ammonium loads within glacial meltwater are rapidly nitrified, contributing ~0.5–1.4 kg N ha−1 to the growing season nitrate flux from the alpine watershed. The sustained export of these solutes during dry, summer months is likely facilitated by thawing cryosphere providing hydraulic connectivity late into the growing season. This mechanism is further supported by the lack of upward weathering or nitrogen solute trends in a neighboring catchment which lacks permafrost and glacial features. These findings suggest that reductions of atmospheric nitrogen deposition alone may not improve water quality, as cryospheric thaw exposes soils to biological and geochemical processes that may affect alpine nitrate concentrations as much as atmospheric deposition trends.


Atmospheric deposition Climate change Cryosphere Nitrification Weathering Mountain ecosystems 



Support for this research came from a National Science Foundation grant to the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research program (DEB 0423662), EAR-1124576, EAR-1248067/1027341, and an EAR Postdoctoral Fellowship to RTB (NSF-EAR 0814457). Logistical support was provided by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine’s Mountain Research Station.

Supplementary material

10533_2013_9886_MOESM1_ESM.docx (4.9 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 4966 kb)


  1. Baron JS, Campbell DH (1997) Nitrogen fluxes in a high elevation Colorado Rocky Mountain basin. Hydrol Process 11(7):783–799CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baron JS, Ojima DS, Holland EA, Parton WJ (1994) Analysis of nitrogen saturation potential in Rocky Mountain tundra and forest: implications for aquatic systems. Biogeochemistry 27:61–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baron JS, Schmidt TM, Hartman MD (2009) Climate-induced changes in high elevation stream nitrate dynamics. Glob Change Biol 15(7):1777–1789CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baron JS, Hall EK, Nolan BT, Finlay JC, Bernhardt ES, Harrison J, Chan F, Boyer EW (2012) The interactive effects of excess reactive nitrogen and climate change on aquatic ecosystems and water resources of the United States. Biogeochemistry 114(1–3):71–92Google Scholar
  5. Bernal S, von Schiller D, Marti E, Sabater F (2012) In-stream net uptake regulates inorganic nitrogen exports from catchments under baseflow conditions. J Geophys Res Biogeosci 117:G00N05. doi: 10.1029/2012JG001985
  6. Brahney J, Ballantyne AP, Sievers C, Neff JC (2013) Increasing Ca2+ deposition in the western US: the role of mineral aerosols. Aeolian Res. doi: 10.1016/j.aeolia.2013.04.003
  7. Brooks PD, Williams MW (1999) Snowpack controls on nitrogen cycling and export in seasonally snow-covered catchments. Hydrol Process 13(14–15):2177–2190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Burns DA (2003) Atmospheric nitrogen deposition in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and southern Wyoming—a review and new analysis of past study results. Atmos Environ 37:921–932CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Caine N (2010) Recent hydrologic change in a Colorado alpine basin: an indicator of permafrost thaw? Ann Glaciol 51(56):130–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Caine N, Swanson FJ (1989) Geomorphic coupling of hillslope and channel systems in 2 small mountain basins. Z Geomorphol 33(2):189–203Google Scholar
  11. Clow DW (2010) Changes in the timing of snowmelt and streamflow in Colorado: a response to recent warming. J Clim 23(9):2293–2306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Clow DW, Schrott L, Webb R, Campbell DH, Torizzo A, Dornblaser M (2003) Ground water occurrence and contributions to streamflow in an alpine catchment, Colorado Front Range. Ground Water 41(7):937–950CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Diaz HF, Eischeid JK (2007) Disappearing “alpine tundra” Koppen climatic type in the western United States. Geophys Res Lett 34(18):L18707CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Elser JJ, Kyle M, Steger L, Nydick KR, Baron JS (2009) Nutrient availability and phytoplankton nutrient limitation across a gradient of atmospheric nitrogen deposition. Ecology 90(11):3062–3073CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Erickson TA, Williams MW, Winstral A (2005) Persistence of topographic controls on the spatial distribution of snow in rugged mountain terrain, Colorado, United States. Water Resour Res 41(4):W04014Google Scholar
  16. Hall RO, Baker MA, Arp CD, Koch BJ (2009) Hydrologic control of nitrogen removal, storage, and export in a mountain stream. Limnol Oceanogr 54:2128–2142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Helsel DR, Hirsch RM (1992) Statistical methods in water resources. Elsevier, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  18. Henriksen A, Hessen DO (1997) Whole catchment studies on nitrogen cycling: nitrogen from mountains to fjords. Ambio 26(5):254–257Google Scholar
  19. Hill KR (2008) Potential climate impacts on hydrochemistry, source waters, and flow paths in two alpine catchments, Green Lakes Valley, Colorado. Master's Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Colorado, p 193Google Scholar
  20. Hoffman MJ, Fountain AG, Achuff JM (2007) 20th Century variations in area of cirque glaciers and glacierets, Rocky Mountain National Park, Rocky Mountains, Colorado, USA. Ann Glaciol 46:349–354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hong BG, Swaney DP, Woodbury PB, Weinstein DA (2005) Long-term nitrate export pattern from Hubbard Brook watershed 6 driven by climatic variation. Water Air Soil Pollut 160:293–326CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hood EW, Williams MW, Caine N (2003) Landscape controls on organic and inorganic nitrogen leaching across an alpine/subalpine ecotone, Green Lakes Valley, Colorado Front Range. Ecosystems 6:31–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hubbard KA Jr, Lautz LK, Mitchell JK, Mayer B, Hotchkiss ER (2010) Evaluating nitrate uptake in a Rocky Mountain stream using labeled 15 N and ambient stream chemistry. Hydrol Process 24:3336–3344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ives JD, Fahey BD (1971) Permafrost occurrence in the Front Range, Colorado Rocky Mountains, USA. J Glaciol 10(58):105–111Google Scholar
  25. Janke JR (2005) Modeling past and future alpine permafrost distribution in the Colorado Front Range. Earth Surf Proc Land 30(12):1495–1508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jones JB, Petrone KC, Finlay JC, Hinzman LD, Bolton WR (2005) Nitrogen loss from watersheds of interior Alaska underlain with discontinuous permafrost. Geophys Res Lett 32(2):L02401CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Knowles N, Dettinger MD, Cayan DR (2006) Trends in snowfall versus rainfall in the Western United States. J Clim 19(18):4545–4559CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Leopold M, Dethier D, Volkel J, Raab T, Rikert TC, Caine N (2008) Using geophysical methods to study the shallow subsurface of a sensitive alpine environment, Niwot Ridge, Colorado Front Range, USA. Arct Antarct Alp Res 40(3):519–530CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ley RE, Williams MW, Schmidt SK (2004) Microbial population dynamics in an extreme environment: controlling factors in talus soils at 3,750 m in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Biogeochemistry 68(3):313–335CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Liu F, Williams MW, Caine N (2004) Source waters and flow paths in an alpine catchment, Colorado Front Range, United States. Water Resour Res 40:W09401. doi:  10.1029/2004WR003076
  31. Mast MA, Turk JT, Clow DW, Campbell DH (2011) Response of lake chemistry to changes in atmospheric deposition and climate in three high-elevation wilderness areas of Colorado. Biogeochemistry 103:27–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Meier MF, Dyurgerov MB, Rick UK, O’Neel S, Pfeffer WT, Anderson RS, Anderson SP, Glazovsky AF (2007) Glaciers dominate eustatic sea-level rise in the 21st century. Science 317(5841):1064–1067CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Meixner T, Gutmann C, Bales R, Leydecker A, Sickman J, Melack J, McConnell J (2004) Multidecadal hydrochemical response of a Sierra Nevada watershed: sensitivity to weathering rate and changes in deposition. J Hydrol 285(1–4):272–285CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Miller MP, McKnight DM, Cory RM, Williams MW, Runkel RL (2006) Hyporheic exchange and fulvic acid redox reactions in an alpine stream/wetland ecosystem, Colorado front range. Environ Sci Technol 40(19):5943–5949CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Monson RK, Turnipseed AA, Sparks JP, Harley PC, Scott-Denton LE, Sparks K, Huxman TE (2002) Carbon sequestration in a high-elevation, subalpine forest. Glob Change Biol 8(5):459–478CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Mote PW (2006) Climate-driven variability and trends in mountain snowpack in western North America. J Clim 19(23):6209–6220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Murdoch PS, Burns DA, Lawrence GB (1998) Relation of climate change to the acidification of surface waters by nitrogen deposition. Environ Sci Technol 32(11):1642–1647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. NADP (2013) National atmospheric deposition program data. NADP program office, Illinois State Water Survey, Champaign, ILGoogle Scholar
  39. Nemergut DR, Townsend AR, Sattin SR, Freeman KR, Fierer N, Neff JC, Bowman WD, Schadt CW, Weintraub MN, Schmidt SK (2008) The effects of chronic nitrogen fertilization on alpine tundra soil microbial communities: implications for carbon and nitrogen cycling. Environ Microbiol 10(11):3093–3105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ollinger S, Sala O, Agren GI, Berg B, Davidson EA, Field CB, Lerdau MT, Neff J, Scholes M, Sterner R (2003) New frontiers in the study of element interactions. In: Melillo JM, Field CB (eds) Interactions of the major biogeochemical cycles, scientific committee on problems of the environment (SCOPE). Island Press, Washington, DC, pp 63–90Google Scholar
  41. Peterson BJ, Wollheim WM, Mulholland PJ, Webster JR, Meyer JL, Tank JL, Marti E, Bowden WB, Valett HM, Hershey AE, McDowell H, Dodds WK, Hamilton SK, Gregory S, Morrall DD (2001) Control of nitrogen export from watersheds by headwater streams. Science 292:86–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Pielke RA, Doesken N, Bliss O, Green T, Chaffin C, Salas JD, Woodhouse CA, Lukas JJ, Wolter K (2005) Drought 2002 in Colorado: an unprecedented drought or a routine drought? Pure Appl Geophys 162(8–9):1455–1479CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Regonda SK, Rajagopalan B, Clark M, Pitlick J (2005) Seasonal cycle shifts in hydroclimatology over the western United States. J Clim 18(2):372–384CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rogora M (2007) Synchronous trends in N–NO3 export from N-saturated river catchments in relation to climate. Biogeochemistry 86(3):251–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Rogora M, Mosello R, Arisci S (2003) The effect of climate warming on the hydrochemistry of alpine lakes. Water Air Soil Pollut 148:347–361CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Saros JE, Rose KC, Clow DW, Stephens VC, Nurse AB, Arnett HA, Stone JR, Williamson CE, Wolfe AP (2010) Melting alpine glaciers enrich high-elevation lakes with reactive nitrogen. Environ Sci Technol 44(13):4891–4896CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Seastedt TR, Bowman WD, Caine TN, McKnight D, Townsend A, Williams MW (2004) The landscape continuum: a model for high-elevation ecosystems. Bioscience 54(2):111–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Taylor P, Townsend A (2010) Stoichiometric control of organic carbon–nitrate relationships from soils to the sea. Nature 464(7292):1178–1181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Thies H, Nickus U, Mair V, Tessadri R, Tait D, Thaler B, Psenner R (2007) Unexpected response of high alpine lake waters to climate warming. Environ Sci Technol 41(21):7424–7429CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Williams MW, Caine N (2001) Hydrology and hydrochemistry. In: Bowman WD, Seastedt TR (eds) Structure and function of an alpine ecosystem: Niwot Ridge. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 75–96Google Scholar
  51. Williams MW, Tonnessen KA (2000) Critical loads for inorganic nitrogen deposition in the Colorado Front Range, USA. Ecol Appl 10(6):1648–1665CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Williams MW, Baron JS, Caine N, Sommerfeld R, Sanford R (1996a) Nitrogen saturation in the rocky mountains. Environ Sci Technol 30:640–646CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Williams MW, Losleben M, Caine N, Greenland D (1996b) Changes in climate and hydrochemical responses in a high-elevation catchment in the Rocky Mountains, USA. Limnol Oceanogr 41(5):939–946CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Williams MW, Bardsley T, Rikkers M (1998) Overestimation of snow depth and inorganic nitrogen wetfall using NADP data, Niwot Ridge, CO. Atmos Environ 32(22):3827–3833CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Williams MW, Hood E, Caine N (2001) Role of organic nitrogen in the nitrogen cycle of a high-elevation catchment, Colorado Front Range. Water Resour Res 37(10):2569–2581CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Williams MW, Losleben MV, Hamann HB (2002) Alpine areas in the Colorado Front Range as monitors of climate change and ecosystem response. Geogr Rev 92(2):180–191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Williams MW, Knauf M, Caine N, Liu F, Verplanck PL (2006) Geochemistry and source waters of rock glacier outflow, Colorado Front Range. Permafr Periglac Process 17(1):13–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Williams MW, Knauf M, Cory R, Caine N, Liu F (2007) Nitrate content and potential microbial signature of rock glacier outflow, Colorado Front Range. Earth Surf Proc Land 32(7):1032–1047CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wograth S, Psenner R (1995) Seasonal, annual and long-term variability in the water chemistry of a remote high mountain lake: acid rain versus natural changes. Water Air Soil Pollut 85(2):359–364CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rebecca T. Barnes
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Mark W. Williams
    • 2
  • Jordan N. Parman
    • 2
  • Ken Hill
    • 2
  • Nel Caine
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Geological SciencesUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geography and Institute of Arctic and Alpine ResearchUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  3. 3.Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, RutgersState University of New JerseyNew BrunswickUSA

Personalised recommendations