Articles | Volume 9, issue 22
16 Nov 2009
 | 16 Nov 2009

Photolysis imprint in the nitrate stable isotope signal in snow and atmosphere of East Antarctica and implications for reactive nitrogen cycling

M. M. Frey, J. Savarino, S. Morin, J. Erbland, and J. M. F. Martins

Abstract. The nitrogen (δ15N) and triple oxygen (δ17O and δ18O) isotopic composition of nitrate (NO3) was measured year-round in the atmosphere and snow pits at Dome C, Antarctica (DC, 75.1° S, 123.3° E), and in surface snow on a transect between DC and the coast. Comparison to the isotopic signal in atmospheric NO3 shows that snow NO3 is significantly enriched in δ15N by >200‰ and depleted in δ18O by <40‰. Post-depositional fractionation in Δ17O(NO3) is small, potentially allowing reconstruction of past shifts in tropospheric oxidation pathways from ice cores. Assuming a Rayleigh-type process we find fractionation constants ε of −60±15‰, 8±2‰ and 1±1‰, for δ15N, δ18O and Δ17O, respectively. A photolysis model yields an upper limit for the photolytic fractionation constant 15ε of δ15N, consistent with lab and field measurements, and demonstrates a high sensitivity of 15ε to the incident actinic flux spectrum. The photolytic 15ε is process-specific and therefore applies to any snow covered location. Previously published 15ε values are not representative for conditions at the Earth surface, but apply only to the UV lamp used in the reported experiment (Blunier et al., 2005; Jacobi et al., 2006). Depletion of oxygen stable isotopes is attributed to photolysis followed by isotopic exchange with water and hydroxyl radicals. Conversely, 15N enrichment of the NO3 fraction in the snow implies 15N depletion of emissions. Indeed, δ15N in atmospheric NO3 shows a strong decrease from background levels (4±7‰) to −35‰ in spring followed by recovery during summer, consistent with significant snowpack emissions of reactive nitrogen. Field and lab evidence therefore suggest that photolysis is an important process driving fractionation and associated NO3 loss from snow. The Δ17O signature confirms previous coastal measurements that the peak of atmospheric NO3 in spring is of stratospheric origin. After sunrise photolysis drives then redistribution of NO3 from the snowpack photic zone to the atmosphere and a snow surface skin layer, thereby concentrating NO3 at the surface. Little NO3 appears to be exported off the EAIS plateau, still snow emissions from as far as 600 km inland can contribute to the coastal NO3 budget.

Final-revised paper