Articles | Volume 11, issue 1
Research article
10 Jan 2014
Research article |  | 10 Jan 2014

Biogeochemical characterization of the riverine particulate organic matter transferred to the NW Mediterranean Sea

M. Higueras, P. Kerhervé, A. Sanchez-Vidal, A. Calafat, W. Ludwig, M. Verdoit-Jarraya, S. Heussner, and M. Canals

Abstract. A large amount of terrestrial organic matter is annually delivered by rivers to the continental shelf, where this material is either degraded, buried or transferred to the deep sea by hydrodynamic processes such as storms. The relative amount of terrestrial organic matter in the marine sediments is often determined by analysing the stable isotopes (δ13C and δ15N) and the C / N ratio of organic matter because the various particulate organic matter (POM) sources have distinct isotopic compositions. With the objective to refine and better interpret POM sources in the marine environment, we have characterized monthly terrestrial POM delivered by eight rivers discharging to the NW Mediterranean Sea: the Rhône, Hérault, Orb, Aude, Têt, Fluvià, Ter and Tordera rivers. These rivers were simultaneously sampled from November 2008 to December 2009 and the concentrations of total suspended matter (TSM), particulate organic carbon (POC) and nitrogen (PN), as well as their stable isotopic ratios (δ13C and δ15N) were determined. During the survey, three rainstorm events with winds coming from the E–NE and the S–SE impacted the NW Mediterranean. Depending on the direction of incoming winds, the fluvial response (amount of water discharge and TSM) was different. Rivers draining the Alps (Rhône River) and Central Massif (Hérault, Orb, and Aude rivers) were mostly impacted by rainstorms associated with winds coming from the S–SE, while rivers draining the Pyrenees (Têt, Fluvià, and Ter rivers) and the Montseny Massif (Tordera River) were impacted by rainstorms associated with winds coming from the E–NE. In addition, the spatial evolution of water discharges shows a different hydrological regime of the Rhône River, with relatively constant and high water stages and TSM concentrations when compared to coastal rivers, characterized by long periods of low water stages. TSM concentrations are positively correlated to water discharges (high water flows resuspended riverbed sediments) but show an inverse relationship with POC and PN relative contents (mostly due to dilution and by low availability of light in river waters during flood events). TSM in most of the coastal rivers have on average 2.5–3 times higher POC and PN mean contents than the Rhône River (8.5 and 1.5%, respectively, for coastal rivers compared to 3.6 and 0.5%, respectively, for the Rhône River). This discrepancy may be caused by the long drought periods in small coastal Mediterranean watersheds that enhance the eutrophication in studied coastal rivers. The δ13C ratios of organic matter also reflect this discrepancy between high and low water stages with values ranging from −33.2 to −24.5‰. The enriched 13C values (−26.3 ± 0.4‰ for the Rhône River and −26.9 ± 1.2‰ for coastal rivers), measured during high water stages, express mostly a mixture of terrestrial source (plant remains and soils) whereas depleted 13C values (∼ −30‰) associated with low water stages exhibit a source with predominant freshwater algae. The high δ15N mean values (>8‰) found in Têt, Ter and Tordera rivers may underline the importance of denitrification processes as a consequence of the eutrophication and anthropogenic impact.

Final-revised paper