Carbon isotopes and lipid biomarker investigation of sources, transport and degradation of 1 terrestrial organic matter in the Buor-Khaya Bay, SE Laptev Sea

Karlsson, E. S., Charkin, A., Dudarev, O., Semiletov, I., Vonk, J. E., Sánchez García, L., Andersson, A., Gustafsson, Ö. 2011. Carbon isotopes and lipid biomarker investigation of sources, transport and degradation of terrestrial organic matter in the Buor-Khaya Bay, SE Laptev Sea. Biogeosciences 8, 1865-1879,

The world’s largest continental shelf, the East Siberian Shelf Sea, receives substantial input of terrestrial organic carbon (terr-OC) from both large rivers and erosion of its coastline. Degradation of organic matter from thawing permafrost in the Arctic is likely to increase, potentially creating a positive feedback mechanism to climate warming. This study focuses on the Buor-Khaya Bay (SE Laptev Sea), an area with strong terr-OC input from both coastal erosion and the Lena river. To better understand the fate of this terr-OC, molecular (acyl lipid biomarkers) and isotopic tools (stable carbon and radiocarbon isotopes) have been applied to both particulate organic carbon (POC) in surface water and sedimentary organic carbon (SOC) collected from the underlying surface sediments.

Clear gradients in both extent of degradation and differences in source contributions were observed both between surface water POC and surface sediment SOC as well as over the 100 s km investigation scale (about 20 stations). Depleted δ13C-OC and high HMW/LMW n-alkane ratios signaled that terr-OC was dominating over marine/planktonic sources.

Despite a shallow water column (10–40 m), the isotopic shift between SOC and POC varied systematically from +2 to +5 per mil for δ13C and from +300 to +450 for Δ14C from the Lena prodelta to the Buor-Khaya Cape. At the same time, the ratio of HMW n-alkanoic acids to HMW n-alkanes as well as HMW n-alkane CPI, both indicative of degradation, were 5–6 times greater in SOC than in POC. This suggests that terr-OC was substantially older yet less degraded in the surface sediment than in the surface waters. This unusual vertical degradation trend was only recently found also for the central East Siberian Sea.

Numerical modeling (Monte Carlo simulations) with δ13C and Δ14C in both POC and SOC was applied to deduce the relative contribution of – plankton OC, surface soil layer OC and yedoma/mineral soil OC. This three end-member dual-carbon-isotopic mixing model suggests quite different scenarios for the POC vs SOC. Surface soil is dominating (63 ± 10 %) the suspended organic matter in the surface water of SE Laptev Sea. In contrast, the yedoma/mineral soil OC is accounting for 60 ± 9 % of the SOC. We hypothesize that yedoma-OC, associated with mineral-rich matter from coastal erosion is ballasted and thus quickly settles to the bottom. The mineral association may also explain the greater resistance to degradation of this terr-OC component. In contrast, more amorphous humic-like and low-density terr-OC from surface soil and recent vegetation represents a younger but more bioavailable and thus degraded terr-OC component held buoyant in surface water. Hence, these two terr-OC components may represent different propensities to contribute to a positive feedback to climate warming by converting OC from coastal and inland permafrost into CO2.

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