Using Geochemical Indicators to Distinguish High Biogeochemical Activity in Sediments

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Amy Marietta Kenwell, Alexis Navarre-Sitchler, Rodrigo Prugue, John R Spear, Kenneth Hurst Williams and Reed M Maxwell, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, United States
A better understanding of how microbial communities interact with their surroundings in physically and chemically heterogeneous subsurface environments will lead to improved quantification of biogeochemical reactions and associated nutrient cycling. This study develops a methodology to predict elevated rates of biogeochemical activity (microbial “hotspots”) in subsurface environments by correlating microbial community structure with the spatial distribution of geochemical indicators in subsurface sediments. Statistical hierarchical cluster analyses (HCA) of X-ray fluorescence (XRF), simulated precipitation leachate, bioavailable Fe and Mn, total organic carbon (TOC), microbial community structure, grain size, bulk density and moisture content data were used to identify regions of the subsurface characterized by biogeochemical hotspots and sample characteristics indicative of these hotspots within fluvially-derived aquifer sediments. The methodology has been applied to (a) alluvial materials collected at a former uranium mill site near Rifle, Colorado and (b) relatively undisturbed floodplain deposits (soils and sediments) collected along the East River near Crested Butte, Colorado. At Rifle, 33 sediment samples were taken from 8 sediment cores and at the East River 33 soil/sediment samples were collected across and perpendicular to 3 active meanders. The East River watershed exhibits characteristic fluvial progression and serves as a representative example of many headwater catchments with the upper Colorado River basin. Initial clustering revealed that operationally defined hotspots were characterized by high organic carbon, bioavailable iron and dark colors but not necessarily low hydraulic conductivity. Applying the method to identify hotspots in both contaminated and natural floodplain deposits and their associated alluvial aquifers demonstrates the broad applicability of a geochemical indicator based approach.