Stream Dynamics with Permafrost Thaw

A researcher collects water data along an arctic stream.
We monitor streams and rivers to understand ecological changes happening in the Arctic.

Dissolved organic matter composition of Arctic rivers: Linking permafrost and parent material to riverine carbon


Recent climate change in the Arctic is driving permafrost thaw, which has important implications for regional hydrology and global carbon dynamics. Permafrost is an important control on groundwater dynamics and the amount and chemical composition of dissolved organic matter (DOM) transported by high‐latitude rivers. The consequences of permafrost thaw for riverine DOM dynamics will likely vary across space and time, due in part to spatial variation in ecosystem properties in Arctic watersheds. Here we examined watershed controls on DOM composition in 69 streams and rivers draining heterogeneous landscapes across a broad region of Arctic Alaska. We characterized DOM using bulk dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration, optical properties, and chemical fractionation and classified watersheds based on permafrost characteristics (mapping of parent material and ground ice content, modeling of thermal state) and ecotypes. Parent material and ground ice content significantly affected the amount and composition of DOM. DOC concentrations were higher in watersheds underlain by fine‐grained loess compared to watersheds underlain by coarse‐grained sand or shallow bedrock. DOC concentration was also higher in rivers draining ice‐rich landscapes compared to rivers draining ice‐poor landscapes. Similarly, specific ultraviolet absorbance (SUVA254, an index of DOM aromaticity) values were highest in watersheds underlain by fine‐grained deposits or ice‐rich permafrost. We also observed differences in hydrophobic organic acids, hydrophilic compounds, and DOM fluorescence across watersheds. Both DOC concentration and SUVA254 were negatively correlated with watershed active layer thickness, as determined by high‐resolution permafrost modeling. Together, these findings highlight how spatial variations in permafrost physical and thermal properties can influence riverine DOM.

O’Donnell, J. A., G. R. Aiken, D. K. Swanson, S. Panda, A. P. Baltensperger, and K. D. Butler. 2017. Dissolved organic matter composition of Arctic rivers: linking permafrost and parent material to riverine carbon. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 30. doi:10.1002/2016GB005482