Contemporary systematics of vadose zone nitrate capture by speleothem carbonate

Wynn, P.M.; Ambler, S.; Grefe, I.; Soto, D.X. ORCID:; Surridge, B.W.J.; Gabitov, R.I.; Barker, P.A.; Anwar, J.; Quin, A.; Pereira, M.G. ORCID:; Grant, H.K.. 2021 Contemporary systematics of vadose zone nitrate capture by speleothem carbonate. Chemical Geology, 157, 120172.

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The movement of nitrate through the vadose zone has major implications for environmental and human health. This issue is particularly prevalent in karst terrain where agricultural activity, thin soils and dual permeability compound the problem of high nitrate loading to the overlying ecosystem. However, a paucity of records which document vadose zone nitrate concentrations prior to the 21st century render legacy nitrate dynamics, source attribution and baseline conditions to be poorly parameterised. Speleothems growing within karst cave settings may provide an opportunity to obtain records of vadose zone nitrate contamination which extend throughout the anthropogenic era. Here, we use dual isotope analysis of δ15NNO3 and δ18ONO3 in a contemporary study at Cueva-cubío del Llanío, N. Spain, designed to examine the transformation of nitrate between surface to cave environment, taking account of biogeochemical transformation, karst hydrology and partitioning as controls on the delivery of nitrate to the speleothem record. Concentrations of nitrate within speleothem calcite are low (measured range of 0.05 mM to 0.37 mM) due to partitioning (DNO3) across the dripwater-calcite interface. Values of δ15NNO3 extracted from cave waters in Cueva-cubío del Llanío (range +2.0 to +7.0‰) are shown to be excellent indicators of nitrate source and demonstrate no fractionation during incorporation into speleothem carbonate (range of δ15NNO3 in speleothem carbonate +1.6‰ to +6.4‰). Values of δ18ONO3 contained within cave waters (range −2.5‰ to +6.0‰) and speleothem carbonate (range +12.3‰ to +32.3‰) reflect a mixed signal of source, biogeochemical processing and hydrological pathway, providing critical insight into the behaviour of the karst aquifer. Contemporary systematics at Cueva-cubío del Llanío therefore confirm speleothem carbonate contains an excellent record of vadose zone nitrate. Analysis of nitrate contained within speleothem carbonate from other regions confirms the ubiquitous nature of partitioning across the water‑carbonate interface and the use of speleothem nitrate isotopes for recording surface ecosystem processes and vadose zone behaviour. Application of these principles to dated speleothem records should provide critical timeseries of nitrate loading, enabling understanding and remediation against the presence of vadose zone legacy nitrate.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Pollution (Science Area 2017-)
ISSN: 0009-2541
NORA Subject Terms: Agriculture and Soil Science
Date made live: 01 Apr 2021 10:57 +0 (UTC)

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