Nitrogen transformations and NO3- removal at a soil-stream interface: A stable isotope approach

Nathaniel E. Ostrom, Lars O. Hedin, Joseph C. Von Fischer, G. Philip Robertson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


The natural removal of NO3- by denitrification within riparian zones of streams and rivers is an area of considerable interest owing to its potential to minimize the impacts of excess anthropogenic loadings. In this study we utilize natural variations in stable N isotopic compositions of NO3- and NH4+ within a transect of shallow wells extending 4 m inland from Smith Creek, a southwestern Michigan stream, to provide insight into microbial processes and the extent of NO3- removal within a soil-stream interface. Within this region three water masses with unique biogeochemical characteristics intersect: a shallow flow rich in NH4+ and dissolved organic carbon (DOC), a deep groundwater mass rich in NO3- but depleted in DOC, and stream water low in NO3-, NH4+, and DOC. N isotope values for NO3- within the well transect were highly variable (-7.7-34.1‰) and reflected intense microbial activity within this narrow region. Isotopic variation was primarily controlled by upwelling of deep groundwater near the stream and partial loss of NO3- via denitrification that was dependent upon a supply of DOC from shallow groundwater. Quantitative estimates of the fraction of NO3- removed due to denitrification within the soil-stream interface were obtained from N isotope data using a modified Rayleigh equation. Conservative estimates of NO3- removal range from 0% to 86%. In conjunction with measurements of hydrological flows within the sampling wells we provide a novel estimate of NO3- removal based only on natural abundance isotope measurements. NO3- removal was found to vary from undetectable levels to 123 mmol·L-1·m-2·d-1 for the narrow region of the soil-stream interface in which deep and shallow groundwater intersect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1027-1043
Number of pages17
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2002
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology


  • Ammonium
  • Denitrification
  • Hydrologic flow paths
  • Michigan
  • Nitrate removal
  • Nitrification
  • Nitrogen isotopes
  • Riparian zone
  • Soil-stream interface


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