Articles | Volume 12, issue 12
Biogeosciences, 12, 3665–3680, 2015
Biogeosciences, 12, 3665–3680, 2015

Research article 16 Jun 2015

Research article | 16 Jun 2015

Nutrient and mercury deposition and storage in an alpine snowpack of the Sierra Nevada, USA

C. Pearson1,2,3, R. Schumer1,3, B. D. Trustman2,3, K. Rittger4, D. W. Johnson3,5, and D. Obrist2,3 C. Pearson et al.
  • 1Division of Hydrologic Sciences, Desert Research Institute, Reno, NV, USA
  • 2Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Desert Research Institute, Reno, NV, USA
  • 3Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences, University of Nevada–Reno, Reno, NV, USA
  • 4National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, CO, USA
  • 5Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, University of Nevada–Reno, Reno, NV, USA

Abstract. Biweekly snowpack core samples were collected at seven sites along two elevation gradients in the Tahoe Basin during two consecutive snow years to evaluate total wintertime snowpack accumulation of nutrients and pollutants in a high-elevation watershed of the Sierra Nevada. Additional sampling of wet deposition and detailed snow pit profiles were conducted the following year to compare wet deposition to snowpack storage and assess the vertical dynamics of snowpack nitrogen, phosphorus, and mercury. Results show that, on average, organic N comprised 48% of all snowpack N, while nitrate (NO3--N) and TAN (total ammonia nitrogen) made up 25 and 27%, respectively. Snowpack NO3--N concentrations were relatively uniform across sampling sites over the sampling seasons and showed little difference between seasonal wet deposition and integrated snow pit concentrations. These patterns are in agreement with previous studies that identify wet deposition as the dominant source of wintertime NO3--N deposition. However, vertical snow pit profiles showed highly variable concentrations of NO3--N within the snowpack indicative of additional deposition and in-snowpack dynamics. Unlike NO3--N, snowpack TAN doubled towards the end of winter, which we attribute to a strong dry deposition component which was particularly pronounced in late winter and spring. Organic N concentrations in the snowpack were highly variable (from 35 to 70%) and showed no clear temporal, spatial, or vertical trends throughout the season. Integrated snowpack organic N concentrations were up to 2.5 times higher than seasonal wet deposition, likely due to microbial immobilization of inorganic N as evident by coinciding increases in organic N and decreases in inorganic N in deeper, aged snow. Spatial and temporal deposition patterns of snowpack P were consistent with particulate-bound dry deposition inputs and strong impacts from in-basin sources causing up to 6 times greater enrichment at urban locations compared to remote sites. Snowpack Hg showed little temporal variability and was dominated by particulate-bound forms (78% on average). Dissolved Hg concentrations were consistently lower in snowpack than in wet deposition, which we attribute to photochemically driven gaseous re-emission. In agreement with this pattern is a significant positive relationship between snowpack Hg and elevation, attributed to a combination of increased snow accumulation at higher elevations causing limited light penetration and lower photochemical re-emission losses in deeper, higher-elevation snowpack. Finally, estimates of basin-wide loading based on spatially extrapolated concentrations and a satellite-based snow water equivalent reconstruction model identify snowpack chemical loading from atmospheric deposition as a substantial source of nutrients and pollutants to the Lake Tahoe Basin, accounting for 113 t of N, 9.3 t of P, and 1.2 kg of Hg each year.

Short summary
Snowpack and precipitation samples were collected along two elevation gradients in the Tahoe Basin during winter and spring from 2011 to 2014 to evaluate spatial and temporal deposition patterns of nitrogen, phosphorus, and mercury. Study results reflect the highly dynamic nature of snowpack chemical storage, while basin-wide estimates identify snowpack chemical loading from atmospheric deposition as a substantial source of nutrient and pollutant input to the Lake Tahoe watershed each year.
Final-revised paper