Land use and episodic rainfall as drivers of nitrogen exports in subtropical rivers: Insights from δ15N-NO3, δ18O-NO3 and 222Rn

Praktan D. Wadnerkar, Luke Andrews, Wei Wen Wong, Xiaogang Chen, Rogger E. Correa, Shane White, Perran L.M. Cook, Christian J. Sanders, Isaac R. Santos

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Ongoing land-use intensification in subtropical catchments is expected to release more inorganic nitrogen to downstream coastal waters similar to historical changes in temperate ecosystems. Here, we examined spatial and temporal drivers of stream nitrogen loads across a subtropical land-use gradient using the isotopic compositions of nitrate (NO3-N) and radon (222Rn), a natural groundwater tracer. We investigated eleven subtropical creeks/rivers over contrasting hydrological conditions in Australia. NOx-N (nitrite (NO2-N) + nitrate (NO3-N)) accounted for 13.1%, 34.0%, and 42.6% of total dissolved nitrogen (TDN-N) in forest, peri-urban and agricultural creeks, respectively. Following an 80 mm rain event, loads of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN-N) from agriculture catchments reached 368 mg N m−2 catchment area day−1. Forest and peri-urban catchments had aquatic TDN-N loads 17.8% and 31.1% of loads from agricultural catchments. Radon observations suggest that nitrogen and phosphorus loads were driven primarily by surface runoff rather than groundwater discharge. The δ15N-NO3 and δ18O-NO3 values in the agriculture, forest and peri-urban catchments indicate fertilisers and soil nitrogen as the main sources of NO3-N. However, one of the catchments (Double Crossing Creek) received a mixture of recirculated greywater and chemical nitrogen fertilisers. Isotopic signatures imply significant NO3-N losses via denitrification during dry conditions. Groundwater discharge played a minor role because regional aquifers were not contaminated by nitrogen. Overall, intensive agricultural land use and episodic rainfall events were the major spatial and temporal drivers of nitrogen loads.

Original languageEnglish
Article number143669
Number of pages12
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021


  • Coastal nutrients
  • Eutrophication
  • Groundwater
  • Land-use
  • Pollution

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