In 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began a water-quality study of the Yukon River. The Yukon River Basin (YRB), which encompasses 330,000 square miles in northwestern Canada and central Alaska (fig. 1), is one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems in North America. The Yukon River is more than 1,800 miles long and is one of the last great uncontrolled rivers in the world, and is essential to the eastern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea ecosystems, providing freshwater runoff, sediments, and nutrients (Brabets and others, 2000). Despite its remoteness, recent studies (Hinzman and others, 2005; Walvoord and Striegl, 2007) indicate the YRB is changing. These changes likely are in response to a warming trend in air temperature of 1.7i??C from 1951 to 2001 (Hartmann and Wendler, 2005). As a result of this warming trend, permafrost is thawing in the YRB, ice breakup occurs earlier on the main stem of the Yukon River and its tributaries, and timing of streamflow and movement of carbon and sediment through the basin is changing (Hinzman and others, 2005; Walvoord and Striegl, 2007).
One of the most striking characteristics in the YRB is its seasonality. In the YRB, more than 75 percent of the annual streamflow runoff occurs during a five month period, May through September. This is important because streamflow determines when, where, and how much of a particular constituent will be transported. As an example, more than 95 percent of all sediment transported during an average year also occurs during this period (Brabets and others, 2000). During the other 7 months, streamflow, concentrations of sediment and other water-quality constituents are low and little or no sediment transport occurs in the Yukon River and its tributaries.
Streamflow and water-quality data have been collected at more than 50 sites in the YRB (Dornblaser and Halm, 2006; Halm and Dornblaser, 2007). Five sites have been sampled more than 30 times and others have been sampled twice during peak- and low-flow conditions as part of synoptic sampling campaigns. Although the synoptic data do not provide a complete picture of water quality of a particular river through the year, the data do provide a snapshot of water-quality conditions at a particular time of year.
Two constituents of interest are suspended sediment and dissolved organic carbon (DOC). Suspended sediment is important because elevated concentrations can adversely affect aquatic life by obstructing fish gills, covering fish spawning sites, and altering habitat of benthic organisms. Metals and organic contaminants also tend to adsorb onto fine-grained sediment. Permafrost thawing has major implications for the carbon cycle. It is critical to understand the processes related to the transport of DOC to surface waters and how long-term climatic changes may alter these processes (Schuster and others, 2004).