Climate-driven changes in riverine inputs affecting the stoichiometry of Earth's largest lake

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Robert Sterner, University of Minnesota Duluth, Large Lakes Observatory, Duluth, MN, United States and Gaston (Chip) E Small, Saint Thomas University, Biology, St. Paul, MN, United States
Lake Superior, Earth's largest lake by area, has seen a steady increase in nitrate levels over the past century, while phosphorus remains exceedingly low, resulting in an increasingly imbalanced stoichiometry. Although its ratio of watershed area:lake area is relatively small, rivers emptying into Lake Superior could be important drivers of long-term changes in lake stoichiometry. To better assess how the Lake Superior watershed affects its stoichiometry, we examined the chemistry of two of its largest tributaries, the Saint Louis River and the Nipigon River, at their confluences with Lake Superior. Both of these rivers have high dissolved organic carbon (DOC) but low nitrate (NO3) concentrations relative to the lake. Using simple mixing models, we found these nearshore confluences to create sinks of lake NO3 as a result of relatively high rates of denitrification. Climate change is altering the amounts and patterns of delivery of materials from land to lakes and we also examined the plume from a June, 2012 100-year flood in the Saint Louis River. Three days after this historic rain event, we found elevated chlorophyll levels throughout the plume, up to 5-fold higher than in the open lake. Combining our samples with satellite imagery, we conservatively estimate that this plume contained 598,000 kg of phosphorus in dissolved and particulate form, or 40% of the average annual P input to the lake. If storm events such as this occur with increasing frequency as predicted in climate change scenarios, the lake's productivity may increase and stoichiometry could become more balanced, through greater P input and increased N retention due to sedimentation and denitrification.