The effect of permafrost thaw and geologic substrate on dissolved organic carbon mobilization and transformation in northern streams

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


Permafrost landscapes exhibit unique hydrology that is linked both chemically and physically to nutrient cycling and geochemical processes. Permafrost thaw is expected to result in a positive feedback to Earth's climate system through carbon release to the atmosphere; this potential demands better understanding of hydrologic pathways in permafrost landscapes in the face of global change. The work that follows is divided into two main bodies of research that explore both carbon dynamics and isotope geochemistry of river waters draining permafrost catchments in the Yukon River Basin (YRB). The first study uses in-vitro incubations of stream water from seven permafrost regions to investigate how biolabile carbon additions (acetate) and inorganic nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) 'prime' water-column dissolved organic carbon (DOC) decomposition. No priming effect from biolabile carbon addition was evident through changes in DOC concentrations or compositional transformations, but consumption of added acetate was correlated with ambient nutrient concentrations. Sites with fine-textured, ice-rich substrate and proximal thermokarst features had higher ambient DOC and nutrient concentrations, and consequently the fastest rates of acetate consumption. We conclude that the fate of biolabile DOC released from degrading permafrost will depend largely on inorganic nutrient availability in receiving waterbodies. The second part of this thesis focuses on hydrology of intermediate-sized catchments in the YRB. We evaluate uranium isotope activity ratios ([234U/238U]) as tracers of groundwater-surface water connection in thawing permafrost landscapes. Streams draining loess-mantled areas had [234U/238U] values moderately increased relative to meteoric values. Streams draining low-order catchments with rocky substrate and surface disturbance exhibit dramatically increased [234U/238U] values, consistent with groundwater connection. In addition, we observed higher DOC concentrations both in areas influenced by recent thaw and where flow is restricted by ice-rich silt. The transformation of northern stream chemistry will likely continue as northern permafrost environents warm, with greatest resilience of ground ice in loess-blanketed areas not subject to thermal erosion by groundwater. As subsurface storage expands and groundwater exchange intensifies, ecosystems within and connected to northern streams will also be transformed, with implications for resource managers concerned with fish and wildlife management in these systems.




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