Recent climate change has dramatically impacted the Arctic, and models suggest that accelerated effects will occur in the future as CO2 continues to accumulate in the atmosphere. Understanding this problem is important because arctic environmental change could have planetary-scale repercussions within human timescales. In particular, oxidation of organic carbon stored in permafrost might create a positive feedback to global warming. While numerous studies have focused on the relationship between warming and carbon cycling in the Arctic, specific effects of rising atmospheric CO2 levels on chemical weathering processes and coupled changes in organic carbon dynamics have received relatively little attention.

This project has two integrated goals: to identify mineral weathering reactions and hydrologic processes that control how and at what rate the inorganic solute geochemistry of water evolves during transport within soils and streams and to establish linkages between chemical weathering phenomena and organic carbon export. The work will focus on the major ion and isotope geochemistry of headwater streams and creeks draining the North Slope of Alaska. Based on preliminary data, the guiding hypothesis of the work is that the ratio of carbonate to silicate weathering fluctuates in response to seasonal changes in discharge and permafrost active layer depth, with the highest ratios observed during base flow conditions and maximum active layer depth and the lowest ratios observed during peak flow conditions and minimum active layer depth. To test this hypothesis and its implications for understanding organic carbon export, the team will: 1) Quantify rates of major cation release, CO2 consumption, and dissolved organic carbon (DIC) production by carbonate and silicate weathering; 2) Evaluate controls on the Ca, Sr, and C (of DIC) isotope composition of rivers and soils; and 3) Establish relationships between these tracers and other river water constituents, including H and O isotopes of water, organic matter concentrations, and the isotope composition of organic matter (both C and N). They will collect water, sediment, bedrock, and soil samples. Water sampling will occur from spring thaw through fall freeze-up. In the laboratory, they will conduct leaching and digestion experiments to quantify mineral weathering end members. They will synthesize data using mass-balance modeling, carbonate equilibria calculations, hydrograph separations, and elemental and isotope mixing equations.

This study represents one of the first integrative efforts to elucidate fundamental linkages between the isotope and organic geochemistry of Arctic Alaskan rivers. Because warming will likely alter the ratio of carbonate to silicate weathering via several feedback mechanisms, this study will establish a novel method for monitoring Arctic environmental change at the watershed scale.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Polar Programs (PLR)
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William J. Wiseman, Jr.
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Department of Army Cold Regions Research & Engineering Lab
United States
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