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Using dissolved organic matter age and composition to detect permafrost thaw in boreal watersheds of interior Alaska

December 31, 2014

Recent warming at high latitudes has accelerated permafrost thaw, which can modify soil carbon dynamics and watershed hydrology. The flux and composition of dissolved organic matter (DOM) from soils to rivers are sensitive to permafrost configuration and its impact on subsurface hydrology and groundwater discharge. Here, we evaluate the utility of DOM composition and age as a tool for detecting permafrost thaw in three rivers (Beaver, Birch, and Hess Creeks) within the discontinuous permafrost zone of interior Alaska. We observed strong temporal controls on Δ14C content of hydrophobic acid isolates (Δ14C-HPOA) across all rivers, with the most enriched values occurring during spring snowmelt (75 ± 8‰) and most depleted during winter flow (−21 ± 8‰). Radiocarbon ages of winter flow samples ranged from 35 to 445 yr BP, closely tracking estimated median base flow travel times for this region (335 years). During spring snowmelt, young DOM was composed of highly aromatic, high molecular-weight compounds, whereas older DOM of winter flow had lower aromaticity and molecular weight. We observed a significant correlation between Δ14C-HPOA and UV absorbance coefficient at 254 nm (α254) across all study rivers. Usingα254 as an optical indicator for Δ14C-HPOA, we also observed a long-term decline in α254 during maximum annual thaw depth over the last decade at the Hess Creek study site. These findings suggest a shift in watershed hydrology associated with increasing active layer thickness. Further development of DOM optical indicators may serve as a novel and inexpensive tool for detecting permafrost degradation in northern watersheds.