EGU21-7808, updated on 15 Feb 2023
EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Biogeochemical zonation reveals three zones of nitrogen turnover in the Ems estuary

Gesa Schulz1,2, Tina Sanders2, and Kirstin Dähnke2
Gesa Schulz et al.
  • 1University of Hamburg, Institute for Geology, Hamburg, Germany (
  • 2Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, Institute for Coastal Research, Geesthacht, Germany

Estuaries are nutrient filters for coastal waters and can act as nitrate sink or source depending on predominant microbial processes, environmental conditions and geomorphological characteristics. Such environmental factors can change along the estuary itself. This study aims to identify different zones of nitrogen turnover in the Ems estuary and to determine the main processes.

Water column properties, dissolved inorganic nitrogen and dual stable isotopes of nitrate were measured along the Ems estuary during two research cruises in August 2014 and June 2020. Based on mixing calculations and stable isotope changes, we found that the estuary in both years is clearly divided into three zones that vary in the predominant nitrate turnover pathways. This was confirmed by principle component analysis.

The zonation mainly corresponded to changes in the geomorphology of the estuary, but a spatial shift of the zones occurred between 2014 and 2020. In both years, the most upstream zone acted as a clear nitrate sink. A strong fractionation (~30 ‰) of nitrate stable isotopes points towards removal by water column denitrification in this hyperturbid estuarine section.  In the middle reach of the estuary, nitrification gained in importance, turning this section into a net nitrate source during both sampling campaigns. In contrast to the biogeochemical active inner zones, mixing dominates nitrate distribution in the outermost section of the estuary.

Overall, the Ems estuary acted as a nitrate sink in both years. However, the zonation showed that relative stable zones of nitrification and denitrification existed along the estuary, which can change – and possibly move – when biogeochemical properties vary. 

How to cite: Schulz, G., Sanders, T., and Dähnke, K.: Biogeochemical zonation reveals three zones of nitrogen turnover in the Ems estuary, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-7808,, 2021.

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