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Research article2020Peer reviewedOpen access

Are dissolved organic carbon concentrations in riparian groundwater linked to hydrological pathways in the boreal forest?

Ploum, Stefan W.; Laudon, Hjalmar; Tapia, Andres Peralta; Kuglerov, Lenka


The riparian zone (RZ), or near-stream area, plays a fundamental role in the biogeochemistry of headwaters. Here, wet, carbon-rich soils can change groundwater chemistry before it enters the stream. In the boreal forest, the RZ plays an especially important role in the export of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) to streams. However, the RZ is not uniform, and spatial variability of riparian groundwater hydrology and chemistry can be large. Terrestrial topographic depressions create hydrological pathways towards focal points in the RZ, which we refer to as "discrete riparian inflow points" (DRIPs). Combining the chemical function of the RZ and the convergence of hydrological pathways, we hypothesize that DRIPs play a disproportionally large role in conveying DOC to small streams. Earlier work has demonstrated that runoff from DRIPs can make up the majority of riparian flow contributions to streams, but it is currently unknown how their groundwater chemistry differs from the rest of the RZ. Therefore, we ask the following question: are DOC concentrations in riparian groundwater linked to hydrological pathways in the boreal forest? To answer this question, we sampled riparian groundwater during six campaigns across three boreal headwater streams in Sweden. The groundwater wells were distributed into 10 DRIP and non-DRIP pairs (60 wells), following transects from the upland (20m lateral distance from the stream bank) to the near-stream area (< 5m lateral distance from the stream bank). The variability in DOC, pH, and electrical conductivity (EC) was analyzed using linear mixed-effects models (LMMs). We explained the variability using three factors: distance from the stream, seasonality, and DRIP/non-DRIP. Our results showed that DRIPs provided DOC-rich water (34 mg L-1) with relatively low EC (36 mu S cm(-1)). The "non-DRIP" riparian water had 40% lower DOC concentrations (20 mg L-1) and a 45% higher EC (52 mu S cm(-1)) on average. Moreover, groundwater chemistry from DRIPs was spatially and temporally relatively homogeneous. In contrast, non-DRIP water transformed distinctly in the last 25m towards the stream, and the chemical variability was also larger between seasons. We concluded that hydrological pathways and spatial variability in riparian groundwater DOC concentrations are linked, and that DRIPs can be seen as important control points in the boreal landscape. Characterizing DRIPs in headwater catchments can be useful for upscaling carbon inputs in boreal stream ecosystems and for delineating hydrologically adapted buffers for forest management practices.


biogeochemistry; riparian zone (RZ); near-stream area; boreal forest; dissolved organic carbon (DOC)

Published in

Hydrology and Earth System Sciences
2020, Volume: 24, number: 4, pages: 1709-1720 Publisher: COPERNICUS GESELLSCHAFT MBH