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Spatial controls on dissolved organic carbon in upland waters inferred from a simple statistical model


Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations in upland surface waters in many northern hemisphere industrialised regions are at their highest in living memory, provoking debate over their “naturalness”. Because of the implications for drinking water treatment and supply there is increasing interest in the potential for mitigation through local land management, and for forecasting the likely impact of environmental change. However, the dominant controls on DOC production remain unresolved, hindering the establishment of appropriate reference levels for specific locations. Here we demonstrate that spatial variation in long-term average DOC levels draining upland UK catchments is highly predictable using a simple multiple logistic regression model comprising variables representing wetland soil cover, rainfall, altitude, catchment sensitivity to acidification and current acid deposition. A negative relationship was observed between DOC concentration and altitude that, for catchments dominated by organo-mineral soils, is plausibly explained by the combined effects of changing net primary production and temperature-dependent decomposition. However, the magnitude of the altitude effect was considerably greater for catchments with a high proportion of wetland cover, suggesting that additional controls influence these sites such as impeded respiratory loss of carbon in wet soils and/or an increased susceptibility to water level drawdown at lower altitudes. The model suggests (1) that continuing reductions in sulphur deposition on acid sensitive organo-mineral soils, will drive further significant increases in DOC and, (2) given the differences in the magnitude of the observed altitude-DOC relationships, that DOC production from catchments with peat-dominated soils may be more sensitive to climate change than those dominated by mineral soils. However, given that mechanisms remain unclear, the latter warrants further investigation.

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This study was underpinned by time series data from two long-term monitoring networks, the UK Upland Waters Monitoring Network  (UWMN) and the UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) and was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council under the first ERA-EnvHealth call (FP7-ENV-2007-CSA-1.2.3-01). We are grateful to all in both networks who have maintained the excellent standards of data and sample collection and analysis over the years, to David Cooper, Matt Fry, Ron Smith and Chris Curtis for assistance in compiling the explanatory datasets, and to Ed Tipping for comments and suggestions. The UWMN is supported by the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), NERC through the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), the Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland), the Environment Agency (EA), the Forestry Commission (FC), Natural Resources Wales (NRW), the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government through Marine Scotland Science Pitlochry, Queen Mary University of London and ENSIS Ltd. at the Environmental Change Research Centre, University College London. We also thank four anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions for improvements to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Donald T. Monteith.

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Monteith, D.T., Henrys, P.A., Evans, C.D. et al. Spatial controls on dissolved organic carbon in upland waters inferred from a simple statistical model. Biogeochemistry 123, 363–377 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-015-0071-x

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  • Dissolved organic carbon
  • Dissolved organic matter
  • Upland waters
  • Acidification
  • Recovery
  • Climate change
  • Land use