PLOS ONE, Volume 16, Issue 7

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Public Library of Science (PLoS)
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Composition Wheels: Visualizing dissolved organic matter using common composition metrics across a variety of Canadian ecozones
Pieter J. K. Aukes | Sherry L. Schiff

Dissolved organic matter (DOM) is a ubiquitous component of aquatic systems, impacting aquatic health and drinking water quality. These impacts depend on the mixture of organic molecules that comprise DOM. Changing climates are altering both the amount and character of DOM being transported from the terrestrial system into adjacent surface waters, yet DOM composition is not monitored as often as overall concentration. Many DOM characterization methods exist, confounding comparison of DOM composition across different studies. The objective of this research is to determine which parameters in a suite of relatively simple and common DOM characterization techniques explain the most variability in DOM composition from surface and groundwater sites. Further, we create a simple visualization tool to easily compare compositional differences in DOM. A large number of water samples (n = 250) was analyzed from six Canadian ecozones for DOM concentration, ultraviolet-visible light absorbance, molecular size, and elemental ratios. Principal component analyses was used to identify quasi-independent DOM compositional parameters that explained the highest variability in the dataset: spectral slope, specific-UV absorbance at 255nm, humic substances fraction, and dissolved organic carbon to dissolved organic nitrogen ratio. A ‘Composition Wheel’ was created by plotting these four parameters as a polygon. Our results find similarities in DOM composition irrespective of site differences in vegetation and climate. Further, two main end-member Composition Wheel shapes were revealed that correspond to DOM in organic-rich groundwaters and DOM influenced by photodegradation. The Composition Wheel approach uses easily visualized differences in polygon shape to quantify how DOM evolves by natural processes along the aquatic continuum and to track sources and degradation of DOM.