Articles | Volume 9, issue 4
Research article
20 Apr 2012
Research article |  | 20 Apr 2012

Increasing iron concentrations in surface waters – a factor behind brownification?

E. S. Kritzberg and S. M. Ekström

Abstract. Browning of inland waters has been noted over large parts of the Northern hemisphere and is a phenomenon with both ecological and societal consequences. The increase in water color is generally ascribed to increasing concentrations of dissolved organic matter of terrestrial origin. However, oftentimes the increase in water color is larger than that of organic matter, implying that changes in the concentration of organic matter alone cannot explain the enhanced water color. Water color is known to be affected also by the quality of organic matter and the prevalence of iron. Here we investigated trends in water color, organic matter and iron between 1972 and 2010 in 30 rivers draining into the Swedish coast (data from the national Swedish monitoring program), and performed a laboratory iron addition experiment to natural waters, to evaluate the role of iron and organic matter in determining water color. By comparing the effect of iron additions on water color in the experiment, to variation in water color and iron concentration in the monitoring data, we show that iron can explain a significant share of the variation in water color (on average 25 %), especially in the rivers in the north of Sweden (up to 74 %). Furthermore, positive trends for iron are seen in 27 of 30 rivers (21–468 %) and the increase in iron is larger than that of organic matter, indicating that iron and organic matter concentrations are controlled by similar but not identical processes. We speculate that increasing iron concentrations can be caused by changes in redox conditions, that mean that more anoxic water with high concentrations of soluble FeII are feeding into the surface waters. More studies are needed about why iron is increasing so strongly, since both causes and consequences are partly different from those of increasing organic matter content.

Final-revised paper