Linkages between nitrogen cycling, nitrogen isotopes, and environmental properties in paleo-lake basins

Liuwen Xia, Jian Cao*, Eva E. Stüeken*, Wenxuan Hu, Dongming Zhi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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The linkages between nitrogen cycling, nitrogen isotopes, and environmental properties are fundamental for reconstructing nitrogen biogeochemistry. While the impact of ocean redox changes on nitrogen isotopes is relatively well understood, it is poorly known how nitrogen responds to changes in pH and salinity. To fill the knowledge gap, we explore the effects of these environmental parameters using a well-controlled set of samples from Carboniferous−Paleogene lake sediments in China. Our results show that the threshold of 10−12‰ in δ15N works to distinguish alkaline (pH > 9) from circum-neutral conditions. Elevated Mo levels in the alkaline samples support the idea of NH3 volatilization from a reducing water column in an alkaline setting. For non-alkaline lakes, δ15N values tend to be higher (up to +10‰) in more saline, anoxic settings, which is attributed to either the expansion of stagnant anoxic waters spurring water-column denitrification or a shift from plant-based toward more microbially dominated ecosystems or both. Our results imply that salinity-induced redox stratification and basicity can alter nitrogen biogeochemical cycling beyond what is shown by the marine nitrogen isotope record alone. This finding will result in an improved understanding of the dynamic controls of δ15N in sediments and lead to better biogeochemical interpretations of paleo-environmental conditions from unknown environmental settings on Earth and beyond Earth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2359-2372
Number of pages14
JournalGeological Society of America Bulletin
Issue number9-10
Early online date3 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2022


  • Biogeochemical nitrogen cycle
  • Basicity
  • Saline lacustrine basin
  • Alkaline lake
  • Salinity
  • Redox state


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