Significant runoff exports of particulate nitrogen (PN) with large tropical storms: Implications of climate variability for watersheds and aquatic ecosystems

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Shreeram P Inamdar, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, United States and Gurbir Dhillon, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Nitrogen (N) is an important nutrient that contributes to eutrophication of water bodies and plays a key role in various terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem processes. Thus, understanding the amounts and timing of N inputs from watersheds to aquatic ecosystems is critical. Most research to date has focused on the dissolved forms (< 0.45 micron) of N such as nitrate-N and organic N, which constitute a major portion of the N flux during baseflow and small to moderate storm events. The amounts of particulate N (PN > 0.45 micron) in runoff, can however, increase dramatically with large storms such as those associated with tropical depressions and hurricanes and can have a lasting impact on downstream aquatic systems. We determined the exports and storm-event patterns of PN for two (12 and 79 ha) intensively instrumented, headwater, forested, catchments located in the Piedmont Region of Maryland. Stream runoff sampling has been performed for baseflow and storm events since 2011 and has included numerous large tropical storms including Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012). Key questions that we address are: How significant is the PN flux, i.e., what proportion of the annual N is exported as PN during the large tropical events? How does PN export vary with storm magnitude? How do PN exports change with catchment scale? What are the temporal patterns of dissolved and particulate N species during the largest storms? Observations for tropical storm Irene (2011) revealed that in just 59 hours this storm contributed to one-third of the annual (2011) N flux from the 12 ha watershed and 87% of this N was in particulate form. A large portion of this particulate N is likely deposited in the fluvial network, especially in headwater reaches, and could potentially become bioavailable. Understanding these contributions from large events is especially important considering that climate-change scenarios indicate increased intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms and thus potentially a greater role for PN in watershed N fluxes and cycling. This study will also enhance our ability to develop better management practices and decision tools to regulate N exports from watersheds.