Isotopic evidence for in-lake production of accumulating nitrate in lake superior

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A century-long increase in nitrate (NO3-) in the water column of Lake Superior is a classic example of recent nitrogen accumulation in ecosystems, but its cause and relationship to historical NO 3- deposition is unknown. We used stable isotope ratios of oxygen and nitrogen in nitrate (δ18O-NO3 and δ15N-NO3) to examine its sources in this large lake, which represents 10% of the world's surficial liquid freshwater. The most parsimonious hypothesis to explain the rise in NO3- is that the lake is accruing NO3- deposited directly on the lake surface because it is too unproductive to completely assimilate all of it. Data for δ18O-NO3 in external sources and the water column, however, are inconsistent with this hypothesis. Instead, the isotopic evidence indicates strongly that the accumulating NO3- is almost entirely derived from nitrification occurring within the lake. While increases in atmospheric deposition of NO3- may have played a role in its buildup in the lake, other factors such as increases in NH4+ and dissolved organic nitrogen inputs from precipitation or rivers, increases in nitrogen fluxes from the sediments, and decreases in burial rates must also be considered as potential drivers of rising NO3-. The sustained accumulation of nitrogen in Lake Superior is thus more complex and incompletely understood than previously assumed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2323-2332
Number of pages10
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 2007


  • Atmospheric deposition
  • Eutrophication
  • Lakes
  • Nitrate stable isotopes
  • Nitrification
  • Nitrogen saturation


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