Trace element transport in western Siberian rivers across a permafrost gradient
Abstract. Towards a better understanding of trace element (TE) transport in permafrost-affected Earth surface environments, we sampled ∼ 60 large and small rivers (< 100 to ≤ 150 000 km2 watershed area) of the Western Siberian Lowland (WSL) during spring flood and summer and winter baseflow across a 1500 km latitudinal gradient covering continuous, discontinuous, sporadic and permafrost-free zones. Analysis of ∼ 40 major and TEs in the dissolved (< 0.45 µm) fraction allowed establishing main environmental factors controlling the transport of metals and TEs in rivers of this environmentally important region. No statistically significant effect of the basin size on most TE concentrations was evidenced. Two groups of elements were distinguished: (1) elements that show the same trend throughout the year and (2) elements that show seasonal differences. The first group included elements decreasing northward during all seasons (Sr, Mo, U, As, Sb) marking the underground water influence of river feeding. The elements of the second group exhibited variable behavior in the course of the year. A northward increase during spring period was mostly pronounced for Fe, Al, Co, Zn and Ba and may stem from a combination of enhanced leaching from the topsoil and vegetation and bottom waters of the lakes (spring overturn). A springtime northward decrease was observed for Ni, Cu, Zr and Rb. The increase in element concentration northward was observed for Ti, Ga, Zr and Th only in winter, whereas Fe, Al, rare earth elements (REEs), Pb, Zr, and Hf increased northward in both spring and winter, which could be linked to leaching from peat and transport in the form of Fe-rich colloids. A southward increase in summer was strongly visible for Fe, Ni, Ba, Rb and V, probably due to peat/moss release (Ni, Ba, Rb) or groundwater feeding (Fe, V). Finally, B, Li, Cr, V, Mn, Zn, Cd, and Cs did not show any distinct trend from S to N.
The order of landscape component impact on TE concentration in rivers was lakes > bogs > forest. The lakes decreased export of Mn and Co in summer and Ni, Cu, and Rb in spring, presumably due to biotic processes. The lakes enriched the rivers in insoluble lithogenic elements in summer and winter, likely due to TE mobilization from unfrozen mineral sediments. The rank of environmental factors on TE concentration in western Siberian rivers was latitude (three permafrost zones) > season > watershed size. The effect of the latitude was minimal in spring for most TEs but highly visible for Sr, Mo, Sb and U. The main factors controlling the shift of river feeding from surface and subsurface flow to deep underground flow in the permafrost-bearing zone were the depth of the active (unfrozen) seasonal layer and its position in organic or mineral horizons of the soil profile. In the permafrost-free zone, the relative role of carbonate mineral-bearing base rock feeding versus bog water feeding determined the pattern of TE concentration and fluxes in rivers of various sizes as a function of season.
Comparison of obtained TE fluxes in WSL rivers with those of other subarctic rivers demonstrated reasonable agreement for most TEs; the lithology of base rocks was the major factor controlling the magnitude of TE fluxes. Climate change in western Siberia and permafrost boundary migration will essentially affect the elements controlled by underground water feeding (DIC, alkaline earth elements (Ca, Sr), oxyanions (Mo, Sb, As) and U). The thickening of the active layer may increase the export of trivalent and tetravalent hydrolysates in the form of organo-ferric colloids. Plant litter-originated divalent metals present as organic complexes may be retained via adsorption on mineral horizon. However, due to various counterbalanced processes controlling element source and sinks in plant–peat–mineral soil–river systems, the overall impact of the permafrost thaw on TE export from the land to the ocean may be smaller than that foreseen with merely active layer thickening and permafrost boundary shift.