Dissolved Organic Matter Composition of Arctic Rivers: Linking Permafrost, Parent Material, and Groundwater to Riverine Carbon
Abstract:Recent warming in the Arctic is modifying the chemical composition of riverine dissolved organic matter (DOM) through changes in growing season length, wildfire, and permafrost thaw. In arctic rivers, DOM composition is an important control on nutrient availability, trace metal mobilization, and greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, shifts in DOM associated with a changing arctic landscape may alter how aquatic ecosystems function in this region. Here, we examined spatial variation in DOM composition in 72 rivers in the Brooks Range and Seward Peninsula of northern Alaska. We characterized DOM using a suite of techniques, including dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration, absorbance spectra, fluorescence, and chemical fractionation. Watersheds were classified based on traits that influence subsurface hydrology, including parent material (volcanic deposits, loess, sand, glacial moraine, bedrock) and permafrost extent (continuous vs. discontinuous zone) and state (ice-rich vs. ice-poor).
We observed considerable variability in DOM composition across rivers. DOC concentrations were lowest in rivers influenced by glacial deposits (<2 mgC L-1) and highest in rivers draining lowland tundra or extensive wetlands (>10 mgC L-1). Specific ultraviolet absorbance (SUVA254), which serves as an index of DOM aromaticity, was also variable across rivers; spring-fed mountain streams had the lowest SUVA254 values (<1.5 L mgC-1 m-1), whereas tundra and wetland-dominated streams had the highest values (>4 L mgC-1 m-1). While hydrophobic organic acids were the dominant DOM fraction in all rivers, we observed a significant increase in the proportion of hydrophilic compounds during winter flow and in groundwater-fed systems. We also observed variation in DOM composition with permafrost extent and ground ice distribution across the region. Model projections over the next century suggest a heterogeneous response of DOM to thaw, likely mediated by spatial variations in ground ice and parent material.