, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 588-606

First online:

Multiple Scales of Temporal Variability in Ecosystem Metabolism Rates: Results from 2 Years of Continuous Monitoring in a Forested Headwater Stream

  • Brian J. RobertsAffiliated withEnvironmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Email author 
  • , Patrick J. MulhollandAffiliated withEnvironmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • , Walter R. HillAffiliated withDivision of Ecology and Conservation Science, Illinois Natural History Survey

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Headwater streams are key sites of nutrient and organic matter processing and retention, but little is known about temporal variability in gross primary production (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER) rates as a result of the short duration of most metabolism measurements in lotic ecosystems. We examined temporal variability and controls on ecosystem metabolism by measuring daily rates continuously for 2 years in Walker Branch, a first-order deciduous forest stream. Four important scales of temporal variability in ecosystem metabolism rates were identified: (1) seasonal, (2) day-to-day, (3) episodic (storm-related), and (4) inter-annual. Seasonal patterns were largely controlled by the leaf phenology and productivity of the deciduous riparian forest. Walker Branch was strongly net heterotrophic throughout the year with the exception of the open-canopy spring when GPP and ER rates were co-equal. Day-to-day variability in weather conditions influenced light reaching the streambed, resulting in high day-to-day variability in GPP particularly during spring (daily light levels explained 84% of the variance in daily GPP in April). Episodic storms depressed GPP for several days in spring, but increased GPP in autumn by removing leaves shading the streambed. Storms depressed ER initially, but then stimulated ER to 2–3 times pre-storm levels for several days. Walker Branch was strongly net heterotrophic in both years of the study, with annual GPP being similar (488 and 519 g O2 m−2 y−1 or 183 and 195 g C m−2 y−1) but annual ER being higher in 2004 than 2005 (−1,645 vs. −1,292 g O2 m−2 y−1 or −617 and −485 g C m−2 y−1). Inter-annual variability in ecosystem metabolism (assessed by comparing 2004 and 2005 rates with previous measurements) was the result of the storm frequency and timing and the size of the spring macroalgal bloom. Changes in local climate can have substantial impacts on stream ecosystem metabolism rates and ultimately influence the carbon source and sink properties of these important ecosystems.


primary production ecosystem respiration seasonal patterns inter-annual variability storms disturbance light periphyton bryophytes macroalgae Oedogonium leaf litter reaeration