Articles | Volume 7, issue 5
Biogeosciences, 7, 1469–1479, 2010
Biogeosciences, 7, 1469–1479, 2010

  10 May 2010

10 May 2010

Isotopic composition of dissolved inorganic nitrogen in high mountain lakes: variation with altitude in the Pyrenees

M. Bartrons, L. Camarero, and J. Catalan M. Bartrons et al.
  • Centre for Advanced Studies of Blanes (CEAB), CSIC, Accés Cala St. Francesc, 14, Blanes, 17300, Spain

Abstract. Nitrogen deposition in remote areas has increased, but the effect on ecosystems is still poorly understood. For aquatic systems, knowledge of the main processes driving the observed variation is limited, as is knowledge of how changes in nitrogen supply affect lake biogeochemical and food web processes. Differences in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) between lakes cannot be understood without considering catchment characteristics. In mountains, catchment features (e.g., thermal conditions, land cover) vary considerably with elevation. The isotopic composition of nitrogen (δ15N) is increasingly used to study aquatic ecosystem dynamics. Here we explore the variability of δ15N in DIN in high mountain lakes and show that environmental conditions that change with altitude can affect the isotopic ratio.

We measured ammonium and nitrate δ15N values in atmospheric deposition, epilimnetic water, deep chlorophyll maximum water (DCMW) and sediment pore water (SPW) from eight mountain lakes in the Pyrenees, both above and below the treeline. Lakes showed relatively uniform δ15N-NH4+ values in SPW (2.2±1.6‰), with no variation corresponding to catchment or lake characteristics. We suggest that organic matter diagenesis under similar sediment conditions is responsible for the low variation between the lakes.

In the water column, the range of δ15N values was larger for ammonium (−9.4‰ to 7.4‰) than for nitrate (−11.4‰ to −3.4‰), as a result of higher variation both between and within lakes (epilimnetic vs. DCM water). For both compounds part of the difference correlated with altitude or catchment features (e.g., scree proportion). Based on concentration, chemical and isotopic tendencies, we suggest that patterns arise from the distinct relative contributions of two types of water flow paths to the lakes: one from snowpack melting, with little soil interaction; and another highly influenced by soil conditions. The snow-type flow path contributes low DIN concentrations depleted in 15N, whereas the soil-type flow path contributes high nitrate concentrations with higher δ15N. The proportion of these two types of source correlates with average catchment features when there is extensive snow cover during spring and early summer and probably becomes more dependent on local characteristics around the lake as summer advances. Lake depth and pore water ammonium concentrations, among other features, introduce secondary variation. In the context of nitrogen deposition studies, lakes with higher snow-type influence will probably register changes in N deposition and pollution sources better, whereas lakes with higher soil-type influence may reflect long-term effects of vegetation and soil dynamics.

Final-revised paper