Mechanisms underlying catchment export of nitrogen (N) during seasonal transitions (i.e., winter to spring and summer to autumn) were investigated in high-elevation catchments of the Sierra Nevada using stable isotopes of nitrate and water, intensive monitoring of stream chemistry and detailed catchment N-budgets. We had four objectives: (1) determine the relative contribution of snowpack and soil nitrate to the spring nitrate pulse, (2) look for evidence of biotic control of N losses at the catchment scale, (3) examine dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) export patterns to gain a better understanding of the biological and hydrological controls on DON loss, and (4) examine the relationship between soil physico-chemical conditions and N export. At the Emerald Lake watershed, nitrogen budgets and isotopic analyses of the spring nitrate pulse indicate that 50 to 70% of the total nitrate exported during snowmelt (ca. April to July) is derived from catchment soils and talus; the remainder is snowpack nitrate. The spring nitrate pulse occurred several weeks after the start of snowmelt and was different from export patterns of less biologically labile compounds such as silica and DON suggesting that: (1) nitrate is produced and released from soils only after intense flushing has occurred and (2) a microbial N-sink is operating in catchment soils during the early stages of snowmelt. DON concentrations varied less than 20-30% during snowmelt, indicating that soil processes tightly controlled DON losses.
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Mechanisms underlying export of N from high-elevation catchments during seasonal transitions