Recent changes in nitrate and dissolved organic carbon export from the upper Kuparuk River, North Slope, Alaska

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Abstract

[1] Export of nitrate and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from the upper Kuparuk River between the late 1970s and early 2000s was evaluated using long-term ecological research (LTER) data in combination with solute flux and catchment hydrology models. The USGS Load Estimator (LOADEST) was used to calculate June–August export from 1978 forward. LOADEST was then coupled with a catchment-based land surface model (CLSM) to estimate total annual export from 1991 to 2001. Simulations using the LOADEST/CLSM combination indicate that annual nitrate export from the upper Kuparuk River increased by ∼5 fold and annual DOC export decreased by about one half from 1991 to 2001. The decrease in DOC export was focused in May and was primarily attributed to a decrease in river discharge. In contrast, increased nitrate export was evident from May to September and was primarily attributed to increased nitrate concentrations. Increased nitrate concentrations are evident across a wide range of discharge conditions, indicating that higher values do not simply reflect lower discharge in recent years but a significant shift to higher concentration per unit discharge. Nitrate concentrations remained elevated after 2001. However, extraordinarily low discharge during June 2004 and June–August 2005 outweighed the influence of higher concentrations in determining export during these years. The mechanism responsible for the recent increase in nitrate concentrations is uncertain but may relate to changes in soils and vegetation associated with regional warming. While changes in nitrate and DOC export from arctic rivers reflect changes in terrestrial ecosystems, they also have significant implications for Arctic Ocean ecosystems.

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