Annual sulfate budgets for Dutch lowland peat polders: The soil is a major sulfate source through peat and pyrite oxidation

Jan E. Vermaat*, Joop Harmsen, Fritz A. Hellmann, Harm G. van der Geest, Jeroen J.M. de Klein, Sarian Kosten, Alfons J.P. Smolders, Jos T.A. Verhoeven, Ron G. Mes, Maarten Ouboter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Annual sulfate mass balances have been constructed for four low-lying peat polders in the Netherlands, to resolve the origin of high sulfate concentrations in surface water, which is considered a water quality problem, as indicated amongst others by the absence of sensitive water plant species. Potential limitation of these plants to areas with low sulfate was analyzed with a spatial match-up of two large databases. The peat polders are generally used for dairy farming or nature conservation, and have considerable areas of shallow surface water (mean 16%, range 6-43%). As a consequence of continuous drainage, the peat in these polders mineralizes causing subsidence rates generally ranging between 2 and 10mmy- 1. Together with pyrite oxidation, this peat mineralization the most important internal source of sulfate, providing an estimated 96kgSO4ha- 1mm- 1subsidencey- 1. External sources are precipitation and water supplied during summer to compensate for water shortage, but these were found to be minor compared to internal release. The most important output flux is discharge of excess surface water during autumn and winter. If only external fluxes in and out of a polder are evaluated, inputs average 37±9 and exports 169±17kgSha- 1y- 1. During summer, when evapotranspiration exceeds rainfall, sulfate accumulates in the unsaturated zone, to be flushed away and drained off during the wet autumn and winter. In some polders, upward seepage from early Holocene, brackish sediments can be a source of sulfate. Peat polders export sulfate to the regional water system and the sea during winter drainage. The available sulfate probably only plays a minor role in the oxidation of peat: we estimate that this is less than 10% whereas aerobic mineralization is the most important. Most surface waters in these polders have high sulfate concentrations, which generally decline during the growing season when aquatic sediments are a sink. In the sediment, this sulfur is reduced and binds iron more strongly than phosphorus, which can be released to the overlying water and potentially fuels eutrophication. About 76% of the sampled vegetation-sites exceeded a threshold of 50mgl- 1SO4, above which sensitive species, such as Stratiotes aloides, and several species of Potamogeton were significantly less abundant. Thus high sulfate concentrations, mainly due to land drainage and consequent mineralization, appear to affect aquatic plant community composition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)515-522
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2016


  • Internal eutrophication
  • Peat mineralization
  • Pyrite
  • Subsidence
  • Toxicity
  • Water level management


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