Sources and cycling of nitrogen revealed by stable isotopes in a highly populated large temperate coastal embayment

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The identification of nitrogen sources and cycling processes is critical to the management of nitrogen pollution. Here, we used both stable (δ15N-NO3, δ18O-NO3, δ15N-NH4+) and radiogenic (222Rn) isotopes together with nitrogen concentrations to evaluate the relative importance of point (i.e. sewage) and diffuse sources (i.e. agricultural-derived NO3 from groundwater, drains and creeks) in driving nitrogen dynamic in a shallow coastal embayment, Port Phillip Bay (PPB) in Victoria, Australia. This study is an exemplar of nitrogen-limited coastal systems around the world where nitrogen contamination is prevalent and where constraining it may be challenging. In addition to surrounding land use, we found that the distributions of NO3 and NH4+ in the bay were closely linked to the presence of drift algae. Highest NO3 and NH4+ concentrations were 315 μmol L−1 and 2140 μmol L−1, respectively. Based on the isotopic signatures of NO315N: 0.17 to 21‰; δ18O: 3 to 26‰) and NH4+15N: 30 to 39‰) in PPB, the high nitrogen concentrations were attributed to three major sources which varied between winter and summer; (1) nitrified sewage effluent and drift algae derived NH4+ mainly during winter, (2) NO3 mixture from atmospheric deposition, drains and creeks predominantly observed during summer and (3) groundwater and sewage derived NO3 during both surveys. The isotopic composition of NO3 also suggested the removal of agriculture-derived NO3 through denitrification was prevalent during transport. This study highlights the role of terrestrial-coastal interactions on nitrogen dynamics and illustrates the importance of submarine groundwater discharge as a prominent pathway of diffuse NO3 inputs. Quantifying the relative contributions of multiple NO3 input pathways, however, require more extensive efforts and is an important avenue for future research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number150408
Number of pages11
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Issue numberPart 1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2022


  • Ammonium
  • Denitrification
  • Drift algae
  • Isotopes
  • Nitrate
  • Submarine groundwater discharge

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