Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 167–184 | Cite as

Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios in surface sediments from lakes of western Ireland: implications for inferring past lake productivity and nitrogen loading

  • Craig A. Woodward
  • Aaron P. Potito
  • David W. Beilman
Original paper


We used statistical analyses to determine which subset of 36 environmental variables best explained variations in surface sediment δ13C and δ15N from 50 lakes in western Ireland that span a human-impact gradient. The factors controlling lake sediment δ13C and δ15N depended on whether organics in the lake sediment were mostly derived from the lake catchment (allochthonous) or from productivity within the lake (autochthonous). Lake sediments with a dominantly allochthonous organic source (high C:N ratio sediments) produced δ13C and δ15N measurements similar to values from catchment vegetation. δ13C and δ15N measurements from lake sediments with a dominantly autochthonous organic source (low C:N ratio sediments) were influenced by fractionation in the lake and catchment leading up to assimilation of carbon and nitrogen by lacustrine biota. δ13C values from lake sediment samples in agricultural catchments were more negative than δ13C values from lake sediment samples in non-impacted, bogland catchments. Hypolimnetic oxygen concentrations and methane production had a greater influence on δ13C values than fractionation due to algal productivity. δ15N from lake sediment samples in agricultural catchments were more positive than δ15N in non-impacted bogland catchments. Lower δ15N values from non-impacted lake catchments reflected δ15N values of catchment vegetation, while higher δ15N values in agricultural catchments reflected the high δ15N values of cattle manure and inorganic fertilisers. The influence of changing nitrogen sources and lake/catchment fractionation processes were more important than early diagenesis for lake sediment δ15N values in this dataset. The results from this study suggest a possible influence of bound inorganic nitrogen on the bulk sediment δ15N values. We recommend using a suitable method to control for bound inorganic nitrogen in lake sediments, especially when working with clay-rich sediments. This study confirms the usefulness of δ13C and δ15N from bulk lake sediments, as long as we are mindful of the multiple factors that can influence these values. This study also highlights how stable isotope datasets from lake surface sediments can complement site-specific isotope source/process studies and help identify key processes controlling lake sediment δ13C and δ15N in a study area.


Lake sediments Stable carbon isotopes Stable nitrogen isotopes Paleolimnology Human impact Ireland 



This research was funded by the Millennium Research Fund, National University of Ireland, Galway. We further acknowledge the Marie Curie Incoming International Fellow program of the European Commission for additional support. We would like to thank the Environmental Change Institute National University of Ireland, Galway, for access to Ordinance Survey Ireland vector data, and Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland, for Corrine 2000 data and lake and river shapefiles. We thank Maria Fahy, David Scallan, and Ailish Lynch for help with fieldwork. Finally, we thank Kerry Allen and Michelle Thompson for help with isotope analysis, and Neil Ogle for advice at the 14CHRONO Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. We also thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on this paper.


  1. Aichner B, Wilkes H, Herzschuh U, Mischke S, Zhang C (2010) Biomarker and compound-specific δ13C evidence for changing environmental conditions and carbon limitation at Lake Koucha, eastern Tibetan Plateau. J Paleolimnol 43:873–899CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Akaike H (1973) Information theory and an extension of the maximum likelihood principle. In: Petrov BN, Csake F (eds) Second International Symposium on Information Theory. Budapest, Akademiai Kiado, pp 267–281Google Scholar
  3. Austin MP (2002) Spatial prediction of species distribution: an interface between ecological theory and statistical modelling. Ecol Model 157:101–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bossard M, Feranec J, Othael J (2000) CORINE land cover technical guide—Addendum 2000. Eur Environ Agency Tech Rep 40Google Scholar
  5. Bragazza L, Limpens J, Gerdol R, Grosvernier P, Hájek M, Hájek T, Hajkova P, Hansen I, Iacumin P, Kutnar L, Rydin H, Tahvanainen T (2005) Nitrogen concentration and δ15N signature of ombrotrophic Sphagnum mosses at different N deposition levels in Europe. Global Change Biol 11:106–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brambor T, Clark WR, Golder M (2005) Understanding interaction models: improving empirical analyses. Polit Anal 14:63–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brock CS, Leavitt PR, Schindler DE, Johnson SP, Moore JW (2006) Spatial variability of stable isotopes and fossil pigments in surface sediments of Alaskan coastal lakes: constraints on quantitative estimates of past salmon abundance. Limnol Oceanogr 51:1637–1647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bunting L, Leavitt PR, Gibson CE, McGee EJ, Hall VA (2007) Degradation of water quality in Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland, by diffuse nitrogen flux from a phosphorus-rich catchment. Limnol Oceanogr 52:354–369CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (1998) Model selection and inference: a practical information-theoretic approach. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Coulter B, Murphy W, Culleton N, Finnerty E, Connolly L (2002) A survey of fertilizer use in 2000 for grassland and arable soils. Teagasc, DublinGoogle Scholar
  11. Cravotta CA (1997) Use of stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur to identify sources of nitrogen in surface waters in the lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania. U.S. Geological Survey water-supply paper 2497, U.S. Geological Survey. Branch of Information Services, DenverGoogle Scholar
  12. Cross JR (1998) An outline and map of the potential natural vegetation of Ireland. Appl Veg Sci 1:241–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Curtis CJ, Flower R, Rose N, Shilland J, Simpson GL, Turner S, Yang H, Pla S (2010) Palaeolimnological assessment of lake acidification and environmental change in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Alberta. J Limnol 69(Suppl 1):92–104Google Scholar
  14. Derksen S, Keselman HJ (1992) Backward, forward and stepwise automated subset selection algorithms: frequency of obtaining authentic and noise variables. Brit J Math Statistical Psy 45:262–282Google Scholar
  15. Diefendorf AF, Patterson WP, Holmden C, Mullins HT (2008) Carbon isotopes of marl and lake sediment organic matter reflect terrestrial landscape change during the late Glacial and early Holocene (16, 800 to 5, 540 cal yr B.P.): a multiproxy study of lacustrine sediments at Lough Inchiquin, western Ireland. J Paleolimnol 39:101–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Edwards KJ, Whittington G (2001) Lake sediments, erosion and landscape change during the Holocene in Britain and Ireland. Catena 42:143–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Elliott EM, Brush GS (2006) Sedimented organic nitrogen isotopes in freshwater wetlands record long-term changes in watershed nitrogen source and land use. Environ Sci Technol 40:2910–2916CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Engel Z, Skrzypek G, Paul D, Drzewicki W, Nỳvlt D (2010) Sediment lithology and stable isotope composition of organic matter in a core from a cirque in the Krkonoše Mountains, Czech Republic. J Paleolimnol 43:609–624CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Francioso O, Montecchio D, Giocchini P, Ciavatta C (2009) Thermal analysis (TG-DTA) and isotopic characterization (13C–15 N) of humic acids from different origins. Appl Geochem 20:537–544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Glew J (1991) Miniature gravity corer for recovering short sediment cores. J Paleolimnol 5:285–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gu B (2009) Variations and controls of nitrogen stable isotopes in particulate organic matter of lakes. Oecologia 160:421–431CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gu B, Schelske CL, Brenner M (1996) Relationship between sediment and plankton isotope ratios (δ13C and δ15N) and primary productivity in Florida lakes. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 53:875–883CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gu B, Chapman AD, Schelske CL (2006) Factors controlling seasonal variations in stable isotope composition of particulate organic matter in a soft water eutrophic lake. Limnol Oceanogr 51:2837–2848CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Håkansson S (1985) A review of the various factors influencing the stable carbon isotope ratio of organic lake sediments by the change from glacial to post-glacial environmental conditions. Quatern Sci Rev 4:135–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Harris D, Horwath WR, van Kessel C (2001) Acid fumigation of soils to remove carbonates prior to total organic carbon or carbon-13 isotopic analysis. Soil Sci Soc Am J 65:1853–1856CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Heaton THE (1986) Isotopic studies of nitrogen pollution in the hydrosphere and atmosphere: a review. Chem Geol 59:87–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hecky RE, Hesslein RH (1995) Contributions of benthic algae to lake food webs as revealed by stable isotope analysis. J N Am Benthol Soc 14:631–653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Heegaard E, Birks HH, Gibson CE, Smith SJ, Wolfe-Murphy S (2001) Species-environmental relationships of aquatic macrophytes in Northern Ireland. Aquat Bot 70:175–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Herzschuh U, Mischke S, Meyer H, Plessen B, Zhang C (2010) Using variations in the stable carbon isotope composition of macrophyte remains to quantify nutrient dynamics in lakes. J Paleolimnol 43:739–750CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hoerl AE, Kennard RW (1970) Ridge regression: applications to nonorthogonal problems. Technometrics 12:55–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Jones RI, King L, Dent MM, Maberly C, Gibson CE (2004) Nitrogen stable isotope ratios in surface sediments, epilithon and macrophytes from upland lakes with differing nutrient status. Freshw Biol 49:382–391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kellman L, Hillaire-Marcel C (1998) Nitrate cycling in streams: using natural abundances of NO3 δ15N to measure in situ denitrification. Biogeochem 43:273–292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kendall C (1998) Tracing Nitrogen Sources and Cycling in Catchments. In: Kendall C, McDonnell JJ (eds) Isotope Tracers in Catchment Hydrology. Elsevier Science, Amsterdam, pp 519–576Google Scholar
  34. Leavitt PR, Brock CS, Ebel C, Patoine A (2006) Landscape-scale effects of urban nitrogen on a chain of freshwater lakes in central North America. Limnol Oceanogr 51:2262–2277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Leira M, Jordan P, Taylor D, Dalton C, Bennion H, Rose N, Irvine K (2006) Assessing the ecological status of candidate reference lakes in Ireland using palaeolimnology. J Appl Ecol 43:816–827CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lücke A, Schleser GH, Zolitschka B, Negendank JFW (2003) A Lateglacial and Holocene organic carbon isotope record of lacustrine palaeoproductivity and climatic change derived from varved sediments of Lake Holzmaar, Germany. Quatern Sci Rev 22:569–580CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Mackie EAV, Leng MJ, Lloyd JM, Arrowsmith C (2005) Bulk organic δ 13C and C/N ratios as palaeosalinity indicators within a Scottish isolation basin. J Quaternary Sci 20:303–312CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McConnell B, Gatley S (2006) 1:500, 000 Bedrock Geological Map of Ireland. Geological Survey of Ireland, DublinGoogle Scholar
  39. Möbius J, Lahajnar N, Emeis K-C (2010) Diagenetic control of nitrogen isotope ratios in Holocene sapropels and recent sediments from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Biogeosciences 7:3901–3914CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. NCSS (2007) Statistical analysis and graphics. Kaysville, Utah, p 2007Google Scholar
  41. Nürnberg GK (1996) Trophic state of clear and colored, soft- and hardwater lakes with special consideration of nutrients, anoxia, phytoplankton and fish. Lake Reserv Manage 12:432–447CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Parplies J, Lücke A, Vos H, Mingram J, Stebich M, Radtke U, Han J, Schleser GH (2008) Late glacial environment and climate development in northeastern China derived from geochemical and isotopic investigations of the varved sediment record from Lake Sihailongwan (Jilin Province). J Paleolimnol 40:471–487CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Posada D, Buckley TR (2004) Model selection and model averaging in phylogenetics: advantages of akaike information criterion and bayesian approaches over likelihood ratio tests. Systematic Biol 53:793–808CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rohan PK (1986) The Climate of Ireland, Second Edition. The Stationery Office, DublinGoogle Scholar
  45. Schindler DE, Carpenter SR, Cole JJ, Kitchell JF, Pace ML (1997) Influence of food web structure on carbon exchange between lakes and the atmosphere. Science 277:248–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Schouten MGC (1984) Some aspects of the ecogeographical gradient in the Irish ombrotrophic bogs. In: Proceedings of the 7th international peat congress, Dublin, Ireland, 1984. The Irish National Peat Committee, 1984, Dublin, IrelandGoogle Scholar
  47. Schubert CJ, Calvert SE (2001) Nitrogen and carbon isotopic composition of marine and terrestrial organic matter in Arctic Ocean sediments: implications for nutrient utilization and organic matter composition. Deep-Sea Res I 48:789–810CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Shapiro SS, Wilk MB (1965) An analysis of variance test for normality (complete samples). Biometrika 52:591–611Google Scholar
  49. Stuiver M (1975) Climate versus changes in 13C content of the organic component of lake sediments during the quaternary. Quaternary Res 5:251–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Templeton AS, Chu K-H, Alvarez-Cohen L, Conrad ME (2006) Variable carbon isotope fractionation expressed by aerobic CH4-oxidizing bacteria. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 70:1739–1752CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. ter Braak CJF, Smilauer P (2002) CANOCO version 4.5. Biometris-Plant Research International, WageningenGoogle Scholar
  52. Valiela I, Giest M, McClelland J, Tomasky G (2000) Nitrogen loading from watersheds to estuaries: verification of the Waquoit Bay nitrogen loading model. Biogeochemistry 49:277–293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. van Groenendael JM, Roepers RG, Woltjer I, Zweers HR (1996) Vegetation succession in lakes of West Connemara, Ireland: comparing predicted and actual changes. J Veg Sci 7:211–218CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. van Hardenbroek M, Heiri O, Grey J, Bodelier PLE, Verbruggen F, Lotter AF (2010) Fossil chironomid δ13C as a proxy for past methanogenic contribution to benthic food webs in lakes? J Paleolimnol 43:235–245Google Scholar
  55. Vander Zanden MJ, Vadeboncoeur Y, Diebel MW, Jeppesen E (2005) Primary consumer stable nitrogen isotopes as indicators of nutrient source. Environ Sci Technol 19:7509–7515CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wetzel RG (2001) Limnology: Lake and River Ecosystems, Third Edition edn. Academic Press, USA, p 1006Google Scholar
  57. Whiticar MJ (1999) Carbon and hydrogen isotope systematic of bacterial formation and oxidation of methane. Chem Geol 161:291–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Wu Y, Lu¨cke A, Wang S (2008) Assessment of nutrient sources and paleoproductivity during the past century in Longgan Lake, middle reaches of the Yangtze River, China. J Paleolimnol 39:451–462CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Yeatman SG, Spokes LJ, Dennis PF, Jickells TD (2001) Comparisons of aerosol nitrogen isotopic composition at two polluted coastal sites. Atmos Environ 35:1307–1320CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Yuan L, Sun L, Long N, Xie Z, Wang Y, Liu X (2010) Seabirds colonized Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Arctic 9, 400 years ago. Polar Biol 33:683–691CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Craig A. Woodward
    • 1
  • Aaron P. Potito
    • 2
  • David W. Beilman
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Geography, Planning and Environmental ManagementThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.School of Geography and ArchaeologyNational University of IrelandGalwayIreland
  3. 3.Department of GeographyUniversity of Hawai`i at MānoaHonoluluUSA

Personalised recommendations