Stream water carbon controls in seasonally snow-covered mountain catchments: impact of inter-annual variability of water fluxes, catchment aspect and seasonal processes

Abstract

Stream water carbon (C) export is one important pathway for C loss from seasonally snow-covered mountain ecosystems and an assessment of overarching controls is necessary. However, such assessment is challenging because changes in water fluxes or flow paths, seasonal processes, as well as catchment specific characteristics play a role. For this study we elucidate the impact of: (i) changes in water flux (by comparing years of variable wetness), (ii) catchment aspect [north-facing (NF) vs. south-facing (SF)] and (iii) season (snowmelt vs. summer) on all forms of dissolved stream water C [dissolved organic C (DOC), chromophoric dissolved organic matter (CDOM) and dissolved inorganic C (DIC)] in forested catchments within the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico. The significant correlation between annual water and C fluxes (e.g. DOC r2 = 0.83, p < 0.02) confirms annual stream water discharge as the overarching control on C efflux, likely from a well-mixed ground water reservoir as indicated by previous research. However, CDOM exhibited a dominantly terrestrial fluorescence signature (59–71 %) year round, signaling a strong riparian and near stream soil control on CDOM composition. During snowmelt, the role of water as C transporter was superimposed on its control as C reservoir, when the NF stream transported significantly more soil C (40 % DOC, 56 % DIC) than the SF stream as a result of hillslope flushing. Inter-annual variations in winter precipitation were paramount in regulating annual stream C effluxes, e.g., reducing C effluxes three-fold after a dry (relative to wet) winter season. During the warmer summer months % dissolved oxygen saturation decreased, δ13CDIC increased and CDOM assumed a more microbial signature, consistent with heterotrophic respiration in the stream and riparian soils. As a result of stream C incubation and soil respiration, \( P_{{{\text{CO}}_{2} }} \) increased up to 12 times atmospheric values leading to substantial degassing.

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Acknowledgments

The National Science Foundation supported this Jemez–Catalina Critical Zone Observatory research through grants EAR-0724958 and EAR-1331408, and LiDAR data acquisition was supported by EAR-0922307 (PI, Dr. Qinghua Guo). Thanks to Mary Kay Amistadi, Scott Compton, Tim Corley, Jessica Driscoll, Chris Eastoe, Gary Gold, Kelsie LaSharr, Courtney Porter and Marcel Schaap for assistance with sampling and analysis, and to Matej Durcik for data management and GIS support. We thank the Associate Editor Dr. James Sickman and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and guidance.

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Perdrial, J.N., McIntosh, J., Harpold, A. et al. Stream water carbon controls in seasonally snow-covered mountain catchments: impact of inter-annual variability of water fluxes, catchment aspect and seasonal processes. Biogeochemistry 118, 273–290 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-013-9929-y

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Keywords

  • Snowmelt
  • In stream processes
  • Headwater catchment
  • Carbon export
  • Aspect
  • Water fluxes