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Disentangling the influence of hydroclimatic patterns and agricultural management on river nitrate dynamics from sub-hourly to decadal time scales

Dupas, Rémi, Jomaa, Seifeddine, Musolff, Andreas, Borchardt, Dietrich, Rode, Michael
The Science of the total environment 2016 v.571 pp. 791-800
agricultural land, agricultural management, agricultural watersheds, climate, homogenization, hydrology, leaching, monitoring, nitrates, nitrogen, regression analysis, risk, rivers, seasonal variation, soil profiles, storms, summer, Germany
Despite extensive efforts to reduce nitrate transfer in agricultural areas, limited response is often observed in the nitrate concentration in rivers. To investigate the reasons for this limited response, nitrate dynamics in a 100km2 agricultural catchment in eastern Germany was analysed from sub-hourly to decadal time-scales. Sub-hourly analysis of storm event dynamics during a typical hydrological year (2005–2006) was performed to identify periods of the year with high leaching risk and to link the latter to agricultural management practices in the catchment. Dynamic Harmonic Regression analysis of a 32-year (1982–2014) record of nitrate and discharge revealed that i) the long-term trend in nitrate concentration was closely related to that in discharge, suggesting that large-scale weather and climate patterns were masking the effect of improved nitrogen management on nitrate trends; ii) a persistent seasonal pattern with winter concentration maxima and summer minima could be observed, which was interpreted in terms of a dynamic nitrate concentration profile in the soil and subsoil; and iii) the catchment progressively changed from chemodynamic to more chemostatic behaviour over the three decades of study, which is a sign of long-term homogenisation of nitrate concentrations distribution over depth. This study shows that detailed physical understanding of nitrate dynamics across time scales can be obtained only through combined analysis of long-term records and high-resolution sensor data. Hence, a joint effort is advocated between environmental authorities, who usually perform long-term monitoring, and scientific programmes, which usually perform high-resolution monitoring.