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The evolution of stream dissolved organic matter composition following glacier retreat in coastal watersheds of southeast Alaska

Abstract

Climate change is melting glaciers and altering watershed biogeochemistry across the globe, particularly in regions dominated by mountain glaciers, such as southeast Alaska. Glacier dominated watersheds exhibit distinct dissolved organic matter (DOM) characteristics compared to forested and vegetated watersheds. However, there is a paucity of information on how stream DOM composition changes as glaciers retreat and terrestrial ecosystem succession ensues. Importantly, it is unclear over what timescales these transformations occur. Here, we used bulk, isotopic and ultrahigh resolution molecular-level techniques to assess how streamwater DOM composition evolves in response to glacier retreat and subsequent terrestrial ecosystem succession. For this, water samples were collected from eleven streams across a chronosequence spanning a temporal gradient 0 to ~ 1400 years since glacier retreat in coastal, southeast Alaska. During the first ~ 200 years since glacier retreat, stream DOM showed marked and consistent changes in bulk, isotopic, and molecular-level composition. In particular, there was a decreased relative abundance (RA) of ancient, energy-rich (e.g., elevated aliphatic contribution), low aromaticity (e.g., low SUVA254 and AImod) DOM and an increased RA of soil and vegetation derived aromatic DOM (e.g., more depleted δ13C, elevated condensed aromatic and polyphenolic contribution) that had a modern radiocarbon age. After ~ 200 years of ecosystem development, DOM composition was comparable to that observed for other temperate and arctic forested watersheds without permafrost influence. These results underscore the timelines on which glacier retreat may have substantial impacts on watershed biogeochemistry and coastal ecosystems that receive DOM from these rapidly changing landscapes.

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Funding

This study was supported by NSF DEB (Grant Nos. 1145932/1146161/1145885/1145313) to RGMS, AS, EH and PR, the DOI Alaska Climate Science Center, and a Fellowship from the Hanse Institute for Advanced Studies (HWK, Delmenhorst, Germany) granted to AS. Funding was also provided by Alaska EPSCoR (OIA‐1753748). The authors would like to thank M. Fuentes for her editorial insight in the production of this manuscript. Our thanks also go to the boat captain, Z. Stenson for his assistance during fieldwork.

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Correspondence to Amy D. Holt.

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Holt, A.D., Fellman, J., Hood, E. et al. The evolution of stream dissolved organic matter composition following glacier retreat in coastal watersheds of southeast Alaska. Biogeochemistry (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-021-00815-6

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Keywords

  • Deglaciation
  • Dissolved organic carbon
  • FT-ICR MS
  • Carbon isotopes
  • Succession
  • Glacier bay