Separating the influences of diagenesis, productivity and anthropogenic nitrogen deposition on sedimentary δ15N variations

J. Brahney, A. P. Ballantyne, B. L. Turner, S. A. Spaulding, M. Otu, J. C. Neff

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30 Scopus citations


The stable isotopic composition of nitrogen (δ15N) in organic lake sediments is frequently used to infer changes in the source or cycling of N prior to sedimentation. However, diagenetic processes that occur after sedimentation can systematically alter the primary isotopic signal recorded in sedimentary organic matter and must be accounted for in order to detect changes in the δ15N of nitrogen inputs to the sediment surface. Here we present a null model that estimates the diagenetic effect on sedimentary lake δ15N records. The model was tested using lake sediment cores from relatively pristine alpine lakes in the Wind River and Teton Ranges of Wyoming, USA. Model-inferred increases in productivity were tested against independent productivity proxies (diatom accumulation rates and the planktonic to benthic ratio), and inferred changes in anthropogenic nitrogen contribution were validated with records of atmospheric nitrogen deposition from the nearby Fremont Glacier, Wyoming. Diagenetic overprinting significantly altered sediment δ15N profiles, and the degree of alteration was not constant through time. Of the cores analyzed, ~30-70% of the variability can be explained by diagenesis alone, with the remainder explained by either a change in productivity or a change in the isotopic composition of the source material. Our null model of isotopic fractionation proved to be successful at separating the diagenetic overprinting from other causes of isotopic shifts, thereby providing environmental scientists with an analytical tool to partition the effects of diagenesis and environmental change on sedimentary δ15N values.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)140-150
Number of pages11
JournalOrganic Geochemistry
StatePublished - 2014


  • Atmospheric nitrogen deposition
  • C/N ratio
  • Diagenesis
  • Diatoms
  • Lake sediments
  • Nitrogen isotopes


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