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Department of Biological Sciences; College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Increasing concentrations of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) have been identified in many freshwater systems over the last three decades. Studies have generally nominated atmospheric deposition as the key driver of this trend, with changes in climatic factors also contributing. However, there is still much uncertainty concerning net effects of these drivers on DOC concentrations and export dynamics. Changes in climate and climate mediated snowfall dynamics in northern latitudes have not been widely considered as causal factors of changes in long-term DOC trends, despite their disproportionate role in annual DOC export. We leveraged long-term datasets (1988–2013) from a first-order forested tributary of Lake Superior to understand causal factors of changes in DOC concentrations and exports from the watershed, by simultaneously evaluating atmospheric deposition, temperature, snowmelt timing, and runoff. We observed increases in DOC concentrations of approximately 0.14 mg C l−1 yr−1 (mean = 8.12 mg C l−1) that were related with declines in sulfate deposition (0.03 mg SO24− l−1 yr−1). Path analysis revealed that DOC exports were driven by runoff related to snowmelt, with peak snow water equivalences generally being lower and less variable in the 21st century, compared with the 1980s and 1990s. Mean temperatures were negatively related (direct effects) to maximum snow water equivalences (−0.71), and in turn had negative effects on DOC concentrations (−0.58), the timing of maximum discharge (−0.89) and DOC exports (indirect effect, −0.41). Based on these trends, any future changes in climate that lessen the dominance of snowmelt on annual runoff dynamics—including an earlier peak discharge—would decrease annual DOC export in snowmelt dominated systems. Together, these findings further illustrate complex interactions between climate and atmospheric deposition in carbon cycle processes, and highlight the importance of long-term monitoring efforts for understanding the consequences of a changing climate.

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© 2020 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd. Publisher’s version of record:

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Environmental Research Letters

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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