Spatial connectivity in a large river system: resolving the sources and fate of dissolved organic matter


  • Corresponding Editor: J. S. Baron.


Large rivers are generally heterogeneous and productive systems that receive important inputs of dissolved organic matter (DOM) from terrestrial and in situ sources. Thus, they are likely to play a significant role in the biogeochemical cycling of the DOM flowing to the oceans. The asymmetric spatial gradient driven by directional flow and environmental heterogeneity contributes to the fate of DOM flowing downstream. Yet, the relative effects of spatial connectivity and environmental heterogeneity on DOM dynamics are poorly understood. For example, since environmental variables show spatial heterogeneity, the variation explained by environmental and spatial variables may be redundant. We used the St. Lawrence River (SLR) as a representative large river to resolve the unique influences of environmental heterogeneity and spatial connectivity on DOM dynamics. We used three-dimensional fluorescence matrices combined with parallel factor analysis (PARAFAC) to characterize the DOM pool in the SLR. Seven fluorophores were modeled, of which two were identified to be of terrestrial origin and three from algal exudates. We measured a set of environmental variables that are known to drive the fate of DOM in aquatic systems. Additionally, we used asymmetric eigenvector map (AEM) modeling to take spatial connectivity into account. The combination of spatial and environmental models explained 85% of the DOM variation. We show that spatial connectivity is an important driver of DOM dynamics, as a large fraction of environmental heterogeneity was attributable to the asymmetric spatial gradient. Along the longitudinal axis, we noted a rapid increase in dissolved organic carbon (DOC), mostly controlled by terrestrial input of DOM originating from the tributaries. Variance partitioning demonstrated that freshly produced protein-like DOM was found to be the preferential substrate for heterotrophic bacteria undergoing rapid proliferation, while humic-like DOM was more correlated to the diffuse attenuation coefficient of UVA radiation.