Dissolved organic matter composition of winter flow in the Yukon River basin: Implications of permafrost thaw and increased groundwater discharge



[1] Groundwater discharge to rivers has increased in recent decades across the circumpolar region and has been attributed to thawing permafrost in arctic and subarctic watersheds. Permafrost-driven changes in groundwater discharge will alter the flux of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in rivers, yet little is known about the chemical composition and reactivity of dissolved organic matter (DOM) of groundwater in permafrost settings. Here, we characterize DOM composition of winter flow in 60 rivers and streams of the Yukon River basin to evaluate the biogeochemical consequences of enhanced groundwater discharge associated with permafrost thaw. DOC concentration of winter flow averaged 3.9 ± 0.5 mg C L−1, yet was highly variable across basins (ranging from <1 to >20 mg C L−1). In comparison to the summer-autumn period, DOM composition of winter flow had lower aromaticity (as indicated by specific ultraviolet absorbance at 254 nm, or SUVA254), lower hydrophobic acid content, and a higher proportion of hydrophilic compounds (HPI). Fluorescence spectroscopy and parallel factor analysis indicated enrichment of protein-like fluorophores in some, but not all, winter flow samples. The ratio of DOC to dissolved organic nitrogen, an indicator of DOM biodegradability, was positively correlated with SUVA254and negatively correlated with the percentage of protein-like compounds. Using a simple two-pool mixing model, we evaluate possible changes in DOM during the summer-autumn period across a range of conditions reflecting possible increases in groundwater discharge. Across three watersheds, we consistently observed decreases in DOC concentration and SUVA254 and increases in HPI with increasing groundwater discharge. Spatial patterns in DOM composition of winter flow appear to reflect differences in the relative contributions of groundwater from suprapermafrost and subpermafrost aquifers across watersheds. Our findings call for more explicit consideration of DOC loss and stabilization pathways associated with changing subsurface hydrology in watersheds underlain by thawing permafrost.