Catchment features controlling nitrogen dynamics in running waters above the tree line (central Italian Alps)
Abstract. The study of nitrogen cycling in mountain areas has a long tradition, as it was applied to better understand and describe ecosystem functioning, as well as to quantify long-distance effects of human activities on remote environments. Nonetheless, very few studies, especially in Europe, have considered catchment features controlling nitrogen dynamics above the tree line with focus on running waters.
In this study, relationships between some water chemistry descriptors – including nitrogen species and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) – and catchment characteristics were evaluated for a range of sites located above the tree line (1950–2650 m a.s.l.) at Val Masino, in the central Italian Alps. Land cover categories as well as elevation and slope were assessed at each site. Water samples were collected during the 2007 and 2008 snow free periods, with a nearly monthly frequency. In contrast to dissolved organic nitrogen, nitrate concentrations in running waters showed a spatial pattern strictly connected to the fractional extension of tundra and talus in each basin. Exponential models significantly described the relationships between maximum NO3 and the fraction of vegetated soil cover (negative relation) and talus (positive relation), explaining almost 90% of nitrate variation in running waters. Similarly to nitrate but with an opposite behavior, DOC was positively correlated with vegetated soil cover and negatively correlated with talus. Therefore, land cover can be considered one of the most important factors affecting water quality in high-elevation catchments with contrasting effects on N and C pools.