Stream corridor connectivity controls on nitrogen cycling

TitleStream corridor connectivity controls on nitrogen cycling
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsSingley, JG
Secondary AuthorsHinckley, E-LS, Gooseff, MN
Date Published05/2021
UniversityUniversity of Colorado Boulder
CityBoulder, CO, USA
Thesis TypeDoctoral
KeywordsAntarctica, hyporheic zone, nitrogen cycling, streams

As water flows downstream, it is transported to and from environments that surround the visible stream. Along with surface water, these laterally and vertically connected environments comprise the stream corridor. Stream corridor connectivity influences many ecosystem services, including retention of excess nutrients. The subsurface area where stream water and groundwater mixes—the hyporheic zone—represents one of the most biogeochemically active parts of stream corridors.

The goal of my research is to advance understanding of how connectivity between different parts of a stream corridor controls the availability and retention of nitrogen (N), a nutrient that can limit primary productivity (low-N) and negatively impact water quality (excess N). First, I developed and applied a new machine learning method to objectively characterize the extent and variability of hyporheic exchange in terms of statistically unique functional zones using geophysical data. In applying this method to a benchmark dataset, I found that hyporheic extent does not scale uniformly with streamflow and that changes in the heterogeneity of connectivity differ over small (<10 m) distances. Next, I leveraged the relative simplicity of ephemeral streams of the McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDVs), Antarctica, to isolate stream corridor processes that influence the fate of N. Through intensive field sampling campaigns, I found that the hyporheic zone can be a persistent source of N even in this low nutrient environment. Next, I combined historic sample data and remote sensing analysis to estimate how much N is stored in an MDV stream corridor. My results indicate that up to 103 times more N is stored in this system than is exported each year, with most of this storage in the shallow (< 10 cm) hyporheic zone. Lastly, I examined 25 years of data for 10 streams to assess how stream corridor processes control concentration-discharge relationships. I found that in the absence of hillslope connectivity, stream corridor processes alone can maintain chemostasis – relatively small concentration changes with large fluctuations in streamflow – of both geogenic solutes and primary nutrients. My analysis also revealed that solutes subject to greater control by biological processes exhibit more variability within chemostatic relationships than weathering solutes that are only minimally influenced by biota.

Altogether, this research advances understanding of processes that are difficult to measure or are often overlooked in typical studies of temperate stream corridors. My findings provide insight into the surprising ways in which N is mobilized, transformed, and retained due to stream corridor connectivity in intermittent stream systems with few N inputs.