Permafrost degradation and nitrogen cycling in Arctic rivers: insights from stable nitrogen isotope studies

Adam Francis, Raja S. Ganeshram, Robyn E. Tuerena, Robert G. M. Spencer, Robert M. Holmes, Jennifer A. Rogers, Claire Mahaffey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
27 Downloads (Pure)


Across the Arctic, vast areas of permafrost are being degraded by climate change, which has the potential to release substantial quantities of nutrients, including nitrogen into large Arctic rivers. These rivers heavily influence the biogeochemistry of the Arctic Ocean, so it is important to understand the potential changes to rivers from permafrost degradation. This study utilized dissolved nitrogen species (nitrate and dissolved organic nitrogen (DON)) along with nitrogen isotope values (δ15N-NO and δ15N-DON) of samples collected from permafrost sites in the Kolyma River and the six largest Arctic rivers. Large inputs of DON and nitrate with a unique isotopically heavy δ15N signature were documented in the Kolyma, suggesting the occurrence of denitrification and highly invigorated nitrogen cycling in the Yedoma permafrost thaw zones along the Kolyma. We show evidence for permafrost-derived DON being recycled to nitrate as it passes through the river, transferring the high 15N signature to nitrate. However, the potential to observe these thaw signals at the mouths of rivers depends on the spatial scale of thaw sites, permafrost degradation, and recycling mechanisms. In contrast with the Kolyma, with near 100 % continuous permafrost extent, the Ob River, draining large areas of discontinuous and sporadic permafrost, shows large seasonal changes in both nitrate and DON isotopic signatures. During winter months, water percolating through peat soils records isotopically heavy denitrification signals in contrast with the lighter summer values when surface flow dominates. This early year denitrification signal was present to a degree in the Kolyma, but the ability to relate seasonal nitrogen signals across Arctic Rivers to permafrost degradation could not be shown with this study. Other large rivers in the Arctic show different seasonal nitrogen trends. Based on nitrogen isotope values, the vast majority of nitrogen fluxes in the Arctic rivers is from fresh DON sourced from surface runoff through organic-rich topsoil and not from permafrost degradation. However, with future permafrost thaw, other Arctic rivers may begin to show nitrogen trends similar to the Ob. Our study demonstrates that nitrogen inputs from permafrost thaw can be identified through nitrogen isotopes, but only on small spatial scales. Overall, nitrogen isotopes show potential for revealing integrated catchment wide nitrogen cycling processes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)365-382
Number of pages18
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2023


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