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Title: Freeze–thaw processes and intense rainfall: the one-two punch for high sediment and nutrient loads from mid-Atlantic watersheds
Large runoff, sediment, and nutrient exports from watersheds could occur due to individual extreme climate events or a combination of multiple hydrologic and meteorological conditions. Using high-frequency hydrologic, sediment, and turbidity data we show that freeze–thaw episodes followed by intense winter (February) rainstorms can export very high concentrations and loads of suspended sediment and particulate organic carbon (POC) and nitrogen (PN) from mid-Atlantic watersheds in the US. Peak suspended sediment (> 5000 mg L−1), POC (> 250 mg L−1) and PN (> 15 mg L−1) concentrations at our 12 and 79 ha forested watersheds for the February rainfall-runoff events were highest on record and the fluxes were comparable to those measured for tropical storms. Similar responses were observed for turbidity values (> 400 FNU) at larger USGS-monitored watersheds. Much of the sediments and particulate nutrients likely originated from erosion of stream bank sediments and/or channel storage. Currently, there is considerable uncertainty about the contribution of these sources to nonpoint source pollution, particularly, in watersheds with large legacy sediment deposits. Future climate projections indicate increased intensification of storm events and increased variability of winter temperatures. Freeze–thaw cycles coupled with winter rain events could increase erosion and transport of streambank sediments with detrimental consequences for water quality and health of downstream aquatic ecosystems.  more » « less
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