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Extreme drought conditions increase variability of nitrate through a stream network, with limited influence on the spatial patterns of stream phosphate

Abstract

Nutrient availability is an important control on ecosystem processes in streams. In this study, we explored how an extreme summer drought affected spatial patterns of nutrient availability along a fourth-order stream network in western Oregon. Droughts are expected to become increasingly common and more severe across western North America and around the world. Understanding how nutrient availability changes locally and throughout a stream network during low-flow periods provides important insight into drought impacts on stream ecosystems. We quantified nitrate (NO3) and phosphate (PO43−) concentrations every 50 m along 11.5 km of a headwater stream network during three summer periods of different drought intensity that encompassed some of the lowest discharges observed in this system over its 70-year hydrologic record. Semi-variogram analysis indicated that concentrations of the dominant limiting nutrient, NO3, became increasingly spatially heterogenous during the most extreme drought conditions, whereas spatial variability of PO43− concentrations remained similar across all three flows. Synoptic sampling during the most severe low-flow period revealed hotspots of biogeochemical processing that would be missed if sampling were conducted during higher flows when surface water dilution and more rapid transport of limiting nutrients would dampen local signals. Along a 3 km section of the upper mainstem, an increase in N availability during the drought led to a reduction in the degree of N-limitation and a potential shift toward P-limitation. Our results suggest that projected climate-induced changes in hydrology in this region will modify local nutrient availability.

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Data availability

The core dataset for this study is available through the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest website (https://andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/data).

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Acknowledgements

We thank Brian VerWey, Graham Takacs, Gavin Jones, and Lauren Still for their contributions to sample collection throughout the McRae Creek stream network. We thank Kathy Motter and the Oregon State University Collaboratory for technical support and access to facilities where water sample analyses were conducted. K. MacNeill and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this manuscript. We thank Lina DiGregorio, Mark Schulze and the HJ Andrews LTER for logistical support throughout the project.

Funding

This research was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) grant DEB 1547628 and by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship award. Facilities and funding for student technicians were provided by the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest and Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, administered cooperatively by the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, Oregon State University, and the Willamette National Forest and which is supported by the National Science Foundation under the LTER Grant Nos. LTER8 DEB-2025755 (2020–2026) and LTER7 DEB-1440409 (2012–2020).

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation and data collection were performed by EH, MK, and DW. Data analysis was performed by MK, JP-R, and CS. The first draft of the manuscript was written by DW and all authors commented extensively and materially on multiple subsequent drafts. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Dana R. Warren.

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Warren, D.R., Pett-Ridge, J.C., Segura, C. et al. Extreme drought conditions increase variability of nitrate through a stream network, with limited influence on the spatial patterns of stream phosphate. Biogeochemistry 160, 243–258 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-022-00953-5

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Keywords

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorous
  • Stream network
  • Semi-variance analysis
  • Drought
  • Stream spatial patterns
  • H.J. Andrews