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Application of iron and zinc isotopes to track the sources and mechanisms of metal loading in a mountain watershed

January 1, 2009

Here the hydrogeochemical constraints of a tracer dilution study are combined with Fe and Zn isotopic measurements to pinpoint metal loading sources and attenuation mechanisms in an alpine watershed impacted by acid mine drainage. In the tested mountain catchment, δ56Fe and δ66Zn isotopic signatures of filtered stream water samples varied by ∼3.5‰ and 0.4‰, respectively. The inherent differences in the aqueous geochemistry of Fe and Zn provided complimentary isotopic information. For example, variations in δ56Fe were linked to redox and precipitation reactions occurring in the stream, while changes in δ66Zn were indicative of conservative mixing of different Zn sources. Fen environments contributed distinctively light dissolved Fe (<−2.0‰) and isotopically heavy suspended Fe precipitates to the watershed, while Zn from the fen was isotopically heavy (>+0.4‰). Acidic drainage from mine wastes contributed heavier dissolved Fe (∼+0.5‰) and lighter Zn (∼+0.2‰) isotopes relative to the fen. Upwelling of Fe-rich groundwater near the mouth of the catchment was the major source of Fe (δ56Fe ∼ 0‰) leaving the watershed in surface flow, while runoff from mining wastes was the major source of Zn. The results suggest that given a strong framework for interpretation, Fe and Zn isotopes are useful tools for identifying and tracking metal sources and attenuation mechanisms in mountain watersheds.