Sources, cycling and export of nitrogen on the Greenland Ice Sheet
Abstract. Fjord and continental shelf environments in the polar regions are host to some of the planet's most productive ecosystems and support economically important fisheries. Their productivity, however, is often critically dependent upon nutrient supply from upstream terrestrial environments delivered via river systems. In glacially fed coastal ecosystems, riverine nutrients are largely sourced from melting snow and ice. The largest and most extensive glacially fed coastal ecosystem in the Arctic is that bordering the Greenland Ice Sheet. The future primary productivity of this ecosystem, however, is uncertain. A potential increase in primary productivity driven by reduced sea ice extent and associated increased light levels may be curtailed by insufficient nutrient supply, and specifically nitrogen. Research on small valley glaciers indicates that glaciers are important sources of nitrogen to downstream environments. However, no data exist from ice sheet systems such as Greenland. Time series of nitrogen concentrations in runoff are documented from a large Greenland glacier, demonstrating seasonally elevated fluxes to the ocean. Fluxes are highest in mid-summer, when nitrogen limitation is commonly reported in coastal waters. It is estimated that approximately half of the glacially exported nitrogen is sourced from microbial activity within glacial sediments at the surface and bed of the ice sheet, doubling nitrogen fluxes in runoff. Summer dissolved inorganic nitrogen fluxes from the Greenland Ice Sheet (30–40 Gg) are a similar order of magnitude to those from a large Arctic river (Holmes et al., 2012). Nitrogen yields from the ice sheet (236 kg TDN km−2 a−1), however, are approximately double those from Arctic riverine catchments. We assert that this ice sheet nitrogen subsidy to Arctic coastal ecosystems may be important for understanding coastal biodiversity, productivity and fisheries and should be considered in future biogeochemical modelling studies of coastal marine productivity in the Arctic regions.