Nitrogen transport and retention in an arid land watershed: Influence of storm characteristics on terrestrial-aquatic linkages

Jill R. Welter, Stuart G. Fisher, Nancy Grimm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Arid ecosystems experience prolonged dry periods, as well as storms that vary in size, intensity and frequency. As a result, nitrogen (N) retention and export patterns may be a function of individual storm characteristics. Our objective was to determine how seasonal patterns in rainfall as well as individual storm characteristics influence N transport and retention on terrestrial hill slopes in a Sonoran Desert watershed. Regression models indicated that variation in runoff ammonium (NH4 +) was best explained by antecedent conditions (cumulative seasonal rainfall, days since last storm) while variation in runoff nitrate (NO3 -) was best explained by single storm characteristics, primarily rain NO3 -. Increases in runoff NO3 - along overland surface flowpaths were balanced by decreases in NH4 + during summer, with no change in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) concentration; a pattern consistent with nitrification. Nitrate increases along flowpaths were not as strong during winter storms. Results indicate that NH4 + is transported from hillslopes to other parts of the catchment, including streams, and that nitrification occurs along surface flowpaths, particularly during summer storms. These findings suggest that the extent to which a receiving patch is supplied with NH4 + or NO3 - depends on the distance runoff has traveled (flowpath length) and the length of the antecedent dry period. The extent and configuration of fluvial reconnection amongst patches in the landscape following long drought periods likely determines the fate of available N, whether N is processed and retained in the terrestrial or in the aquatic component of the watershed, and the mechanisms involved. The nature of this fluvial reconnection is driven by the size, intensity and sequence of storms in space and time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)421-440
Number of pages20
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 2005


  • Desert
  • Nitrogen cycling
  • Precipitation pulse
  • Runoff
  • Terrestrial-aquatic linkage

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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