Organic matter pools in sediments of the tidal Elbe river

F. Zander*, A. Groengroeft, A. Eschenbach, T. J. Heimovaara, J. Gebert

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
9 Downloads (Pure)


Anaerobic sediment organic matter decay generates methane, delays sediment consolidation, reduces sediment density, viscosity and shear strength, all impacting the sediment rheological parameters and the navigable depth. This study quantifies the share of anaerobically and aerobically degradable sediment organic matter (SOM) in a depth profile and along a transect through the tidal river Elbe in the section of the Port of Hamburg. From exponential organic matter decay functions, organic matter decay rates (mg C gTOC−1 d−1) were derived and clustered with a k-Means Cluster Analysis. The reactivity of different (kinetic) organic matter pools along the river transect were characterized based on their biodegradation rates. A fast, medium, slowly and non-degradable pool (pools 1–4) were identified based on the measured organic matter lability. SOM lability decreased from upstream to downstream, evidenced by the decreasing amount of the easily degradable pool 1 material from upstream to downstream. The size of the slowly degradable pool 3, assumed to be associated with SOM bound to the mineral particles, did not show any spatial gradient and is therefore suggested to represent a baseline share of hardly accessible SOM in the investigation area (about 12%−16% of TOC). Total degradability thus appears to be governed by the amount of SOM present in addition to this basis (pool 3), which in turn follows a source gradient and an age gradient from upstream to downstream. The recalcitrant pool 4 was the largest at any part of the harbour, for any depth, and for both, anaerobic and aerobic conditions (about 75%−85% of TOC). This indicates that the sediment in the investigation area, including the uppermost fluidic and freshly settled layers, mostly comprises stabilised organic matter and contributes largely to storage of organic carbon. Differently sized anaerobic SOM pools with depth were observed as well as seasonal changes of the easily degradable SOM pool 1. The degradability was larger in upper sediment layers, it was also larger under aerobic conditions (by about 10% of TOC) but the differences between aerobic and anaerobic decay decreased from upstream to downstream.

Original languageEnglish
Article number125997
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Organic matter decay rates
  • Organic matter lability
  • Recalcitrance
  • River sediments
  • Spatial variability


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