Natural controls and human impacts on stream nutrient concentrations in a deforested region of the Brazilian Amazon basin

Research paper by T.W. Biggs, T. Dunne, L.A. Martinelli

Indexed on: 01 Apr '04Published on: 01 Apr '04Published in: Biogeochemistry


This study documents regional patterns in stream nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in the Brazilian state of Rondônia in the southwestern Amazon basin, and interprets the patterns as functions of watershed soil properties, deforestation extent, and urban population density. The survey includes 77 different locations sampled in the dry and wet seasons, with a watershed size range from 1.8 to 33,000 km2 over a total area of approximately 140,000 km2. A sequential regression technique is used to separate the effects of natural watersheds properties and anthropogenic disturbance on nutrients and chloride. Natural variation in soil texture explains most of the variance in stream nitrate concentrations, while deforestation extent and urban population density explain most of the variance in stream chloride (Cl) and total dissolved nitrogen (TDN) concentrations. Stream TDN, total dissolved phosphorus (TDP), particulate phosphorus (PP) and Cl concentrations all increase non-linearly with deforestation extent in the dry season after controlling for natural variability due to soil type. Stream nutrient and Cl disturbances are observed only in watersheds more than 66–75% deforested (watershed area range 2–300 km2), suggesting stream nutrient concentrations are resistant to perturbation from vegetation conversion below a 66–75% threshold. In heavily deforested watersheds, stream Cl shows the largest changes in concentration (12 ± 6 times forested background), followed by TDP (2.3 ± 1.5), PP (1.9 ± 0.8) and TDN (1.7 ± 0.5). Wet season signals in Cl and TDP are diluted relative to the dry season, and no land use signal is observed in wet season TDN, PN, or PP. Stream TDN and TDP concentrations in non-urban watersheds both correlate with stream Cl, suggesting that sources other than vegetation and soil organic matter contribute to enhanced nutrient concentrations. Small, urbanized watersheds (5–20 km2) have up to 40 times the chloride and 10 times the TDN concentrations of forested catchments in the dry season. Several large watersheds (∼1000–3000 km2) with urban populations show higher Cl, TDN and TDP levels than any small pasture watershed, suggesting that human impacts on nutrient concentrations in large river systems may be dominated by urban areas. Anthropogenic disturbance of dry-season stream Cl and TDN is detectable in large streams draining deforested and urbanized watersheds up to 33,000 km2. We conclude that regional deforestation and urbanization result in changes in stream Cl, N and P concentrations at wide range of scales, from small pasture streams to large river systems.