Articles | Volume 14, issue 12
Research article
21 Jun 2017
Research article |  | 21 Jun 2017

From soil water to surface water – how the riparian zone controls element transport from a boreal forest to a stream

Fredrik Lidman, Åsa Boily, Hjalmar Laudon, and Stephan J. Köhler

Abstract. Boreal headwaters are often lined by strips of highly organic soils, which are the last terrestrial environment to leave an imprint on discharging groundwater before it enters a stream. Because these riparian soils are so different from the Podzol soils that dominate much of the boreal landscape, they are known to have a major impact on the biogeochemistry of important elements such as C, N, P and Fe and the transfer of these elements from terrestrial to aquatic ecosystems. For most elements, however, the role of the riparian zone has remained unclear, although it should be expected that the mobility of many elements is affected by changes in, for example, pH, redox potential and concentration of organic carbon as they are transported through the riparian zone. Therefore, soil water and groundwater was sampled at different depths along a 22 m hillslope transect in the Krycklan catchment in northern Sweden using soil lysimeters and analysed for a large number of major and trace elements (Al, As, B, Ba, Ca, Cd, Cl, Co, Cr, Cs, Cu, Fe, K, La, Li, Mg, Mn, Na, Ni, Pb, Rb, Se, Si, Sr, Th, Ti, U, V, Zn, Zr) and other parameters such as sulfate and total organic carbon (TOC). The results showed that the concentrations of most investigated elements increased substantially (up to 60 times) as the water flowed from the uphill mineral soils and into the riparian zone, largely as a result of higher TOC concentrations. The stream water concentrations of these elements were typically somewhat lower than in the riparian zone, but still considerably higher than in the uphill mineral soils, which suggests that riparian soils have a decisive impact on the water quality of boreal streams. The degree of enrichment in the riparian zone for different elements could be linked to the affinity for organic matter, indicating that the pattern with strongly elevated concentrations in riparian soils is typical for organophilic substances. One likely explanation is that the solubility of many organophilic elements increases as a result of the higher concentrations of TOC in the riparian zone. Elements with low or modest affinity for organic matter (e.g. Na, Cl, K, Mg and Ca) occurred in similar or lower concentrations in the riparian zone. Despite the elevated concentrations of many elements in riparian soil water and groundwater, no increase in the concentrations in biota could be observed (bilberry leaves and spruce shoots).

Short summary
The riparian zone is the narrow strip of land that lines a watercourse. This is the last soil that the groundwater is in contact with before it enters the stream and it therefore has a high impact on the water quality. In this paper we show that many elements occur in elevated concentrations in the peat-like riparian zone of boreal headwaters and that this also leads to elevated concentrations in the streams. Hence, understanding riparian soils is crucial for a sustainable management of streams.
Final-revised paper