Articles | Volume 13, issue 2
Research article
02 Feb 2016
Research article |  | 02 Feb 2016

Colored dissolved organic matter in shallow estuaries: relationships between carbon sources and light attenuation

W. K. Oestreich, N. K. Ganju, J. W. Pohlman, and S. E. Suttles

Abstract. Light availability is of primary importance to the ecological function of shallow estuaries. For example, benthic primary production by submerged aquatic vegetation is contingent upon light penetration to the seabed. A major component that attenuates light in estuaries is colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM). CDOM is often measured via a proxy, fluorescing dissolved organic matter (fDOM), due to the ease of in situ fDOM sensor measurements. Fluorescence must be converted to CDOM absorbance for use in light attenuation calculations. However, this CDOM–fDOM relationship varies among and within estuaries. We quantified the variability in this relationship within three estuaries along the mid-Atlantic margin of the eastern United States: West Falmouth Harbor (MA), Barnegat Bay (NJ), and Chincoteague Bay (MD/VA). Land use surrounding these estuaries ranges from urban to developed, with varying sources of nutrients and organic matter. Measurements of fDOM (excitation and emission wavelengths of 365 nm (±5 nm) and 460 nm (±40 nm), respectively) and CDOM absorbance were taken along a terrestrial-to-marine gradient in all three estuaries. The ratio of the absorption coefficient at 340 nm (m−1) to fDOM (QSU) was higher in West Falmouth Harbor (1.22) than in Barnegat Bay (0.22) and Chincoteague Bay (0.17). The CDOM : fDOM absorption ratio was variable between sites within West Falmouth Harbor and Barnegat Bay, but consistent between sites within Chincoteague Bay. Stable carbon isotope analysis for constraining the source of dissolved organic matter (DOM) in West Falmouth Harbor and Barnegat Bay yielded δ13C values ranging from −19.7 to −26.1 ‰ and −20.8 to −26.7 ‰, respectively. Concentration and stable carbon isotope mixing models of DOC (dissolved organic carbon) indicate a contribution of 13C-enriched DOC in the estuaries. The most likely source of 13C-enriched DOC for the systems we investigated is Spartina cordgrass. Comparison of DOC source to CDOM : fDOM absorption ratios at each site demonstrates the relationship between source and optical properties. Samples with 13C-enriched carbon isotope values, indicating a greater contribution from marsh organic material, had higher CDOM : fDOM absorption ratios than samples with greater contribution from terrestrial organic material. Applying a uniform CDOM : fDOM absorption ratio and spectral slope within a given estuary yields errors in modeled light attenuation ranging from 11 to 33 % depending on estuary. The application of a uniform absorption ratio across all estuaries doubles this error. This study demonstrates that light attenuation coefficients for CDOM based on continuous fDOM records are highly dependent on the source of DOM present in the estuary. Thus, light attenuation models for estuaries would be improved by quantification of CDOM absorption and DOM source identification.

Short summary
Colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM) is a factor in determining penetration of light in estuaries. Important plant species growing in the beds of estuaries depend on such light penetration for survival. Previous studies have used CDOM fluorescence to approximate light absorption by CDOM but have found variable relationships between fluorescence and absorbance. This paper describes this variability in three east coast estuaries, and shows that this conversion is dependent on CDOM source.
Final-revised paper