Nutrient Legacies and Time Lags: Understanding Catchment Biogeochemical Responses in Anthropogenic Landscapes

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Kimberly J Van Meter and Nandita B Basu, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada
Human modification of the nitrogen (N) cycle has resulted in increased flows of reactive N, with some suggesting that planetary boundaries for maintaining human and ecosystem health have been exceeded. Persistence of large hypoxic zones in inland and coastal waters created by elevated concentrations of nitrate is one of the most significant impacts of such increased flows. While the need to manage these flows is recognized, best management practices to reduce stream N concentrations have had only limited success. Some have attributed this lack of success to accumulation of legacy N stores from decades of fertilizer application. Here we introduce an unprecedented analysis of long-term soil data from the Mississippi River Basin (MRB) revealing significant increases in total N (TN) content. We show that TN accumulation for the MRB accounts for 43% of net anthropogenic N inputs, complementing previous work indicating an approximately 25% loss of net inputs as riverine output. These findings significantly reduce uncertainty associated with basin-level N retention and demonstrate the presence of N accumulation in the deeper subsurface of agricultural soils. The presence of such legacy N stores is utilized in the development of a conceptual framework for quantifying catchment-scale time lags based on both soil nutrient accumulations (biogeochemical legacy) and groundwater travel time distributions (hydrologic legacy). Time scales of change for stream nutrient concentrations are explored as a function of both natural and anthropogenic controls, from topography to spatial patterns of land-use change, and an optimization approach has been developed to determine maximum possible concentration reduction benefits within time frames of interest.