Differentiating physical and biological storage of nitrogen along an intermittent Antarctic stream corridor

TitleDifferentiating physical and biological storage of nitrogen along an intermittent Antarctic stream corridor
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsSingley, JG, Salvatore, MR, Gooseff, MN, McKnight, DM, Hinckley, E-LS
JournalFreshwater Science
Date Published09/2023
Keywordshyporheic zone, McMurdo LTER, nitrogen cycling, nutrient budget, organic matter, periphyton

In many temperate streams, biological uptake of N acts to attenuate the transport of excess N from allochthonous anthropogenic imports. Relatively few studies have determined how this N uptake relates to the magnitude of physical vs. biological N storage in the stream corridor, especially for intermittent systems where allochthonous N imports are often low and N transport may only occur during brief periods of streamflow. Glacial meltwater streams in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica provide an excellent setting to quantify autochthonous N cycling and storage processes supported by abundant algal mats and well-connected hyporheic zones. We combined historic point-scale sediment and periphyton sample datasets with remote sensing-based modeling of periphyton coverage to estimate how much N was stored in periphyton biomass and the hyporheic zone of a 5-km long McMurdo Dry Valley stream corridor (>100,000 m2). We contextualized these N storage calculations by estimating the magnitude of annual N imports to and exports from the stream corridor based on >2 decades of streamflow and surface water data, source glacier ice cores and meltwater data, and past studies of local aeolian deposition and biological N fixation rates. We found that in this highly oligotrophic system, stream corridor-scale N storage was ~1000x that of total annual N import or export fluxes. More than 90% of this temporarily stored N was autochthonous organic matter in the shallow (<10 cm) hyporheic zone, which acts as a reservoir that sustains N availability in the water column. Despite its location in a polar desert devoid of higher-order vegetation, area-normalized N storage (~40 g N/m2) was greater than that reported for streams at lower latitudes (~1–22 g N/m2). We also demonstrated that NH4+ sorption to stream sediment may be an important physicochemical N storage mechanism that responds to short-term fluctuations in streamflow and governs the mobility of inorganic N. Altogether, this research illustrates the importance of quantifying N storage within stream corridors when evaluating the significance of internal cycling and physical retention processes that modulate N availability.

Short TitleFreshwater Science