Spatial variability of organic matter degradability in tidal Elbe sediments

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Purpose: The microbial turnover of sediment organic matter (OM) in ports and waterways impacts water quality, sonic depth finding and presumably also rheological properties as well as greenhouse gas emissions, especially if organic carbon is released as methane. As a consequence, sediment management practices as a whole are affected. This study aimed to discern spatial OM degradability patterns in the Port of Hamburg and investigated correlations with standard analytical properties as a basis for future predictive modelling. Materials and methods: Sediments in the Port of Hamburg were repeatedly sampled at nine locations along an east-west transect using a 1-m corer. In a stratified sampling approach, layers of suspended particulate matter (SPM), fluid mud (FM), pre-consolidated sediment (PS) and consolidated sediment (CS) were identified and individually analysed for long-term aerobic and anaerobic degradation of organic matter, DNA concentration, stable carbon isotope signature, density fractions and standard solids and pore water properties. Results and discussion: The investigation area was characterised by a distinct gradient with a 10-fold higher OM degradability in upstream areas and lower degradability in downstream areas. Concomitantly, upstream locations showed higher DNA concentrations and more negative δ13C values. The share of bulk sediment in the heavy density fraction as well as the proportion and absolute amount of organic carbon were significantly larger at downstream locations. A depth and hence age-related gradient was found at individual locations, showing higher degradability of the upper, younger material, concomitant with higher DNA concentration, and lower OM turnover in the deeper, older and more consolidated material. Deeper layers were also characterised by higher concentrations of pore water ammonium, indicative of anaerobic nitrogen mineralisation. Conclusions: Organic matter lability is inversely linked to its stabilisation in organo-mineral complexes. The observed degradability gradient is likely due to the different OM quality in relation to its origin. Downstream OM enters the system with the tidal flood current from the direction of the North Sea whereas upstream locations receive OM originating from the catchment, containing more autochthonous, plankton-derived and more easily degradable components. At individual sampling points, depth-related degradability gradients reflect an age gradient, with easily degradable material in top layers and increasing stabilisation of OM in organo-mineral compounds with depth.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2573-2587
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Soils and Sediments
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Dredging
  • Fluid mud
  • Organic matter degradation
  • Organo-mineral complexes

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