, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 203–240 | Cite as

Concentration and transport of dissolved and suspended substances in the Orinoco River

  • William M. LewisJr.
  • James F. SaundersIII


The Orinoco River, which is hydrologically unregulated and has a minimally disturbed watershed, was sampled quantitatively over a four-year interval. In conjunction with the sampling, a method was developed for quantifying statistical uncertainty in the estimates of annual transport. The discharge-weighted mean concentration of total suspended solids in the Orinoco River is 80 mg/l, which corresponds to total annual transport of 90 × 106 t/y, or, expressed per unit of watershed area, 960 kg/ha/y, of which 96% is inorganic. The mean for dissolved solids is 34 mg/l, of which 25 mg/l is inorganic. The total transport of inorganic material, with a small allowance for bedload, is 128 × 106 t/y, which corresponds to an erosion rate of 4 cm/1000 y. Concentrations of dissolved and suspended constituents derived from rock weathering are very low because of dilution from high runoff (1190 mm/y), coverage of the southern part of the drainage by shield rock, and minimal watershed disturbance. Seasonal patterns in dissolved and suspended constituents are repeated with a high degree of consistency from one year to the next.

For most variables, relationships between transport and discharge are described adequately by a power function. There are three categories of response to changing discharge: purging (exponent > 1: soluble organic fractions and all particulate fractions), dilution (exponent 0–1: major ionic solids and silicon), and conservation (exponent < 0: nitrate, interannual). Variability across seasons and across years is highest for the particulate constituents, but within this group variability is lower for the organic than for the inorganic components. Major ions that originate primarily from the atmosphere have a higher seasonal variability than major ions that originate primarily from weathering. Potassium and soluble silicon have the lowest variabilities. Variability is much lower across years than across seasons for most constituents.

Because of high runoff per unit area, the Orinoco drainage has a high specific transport of organic carbon (72 kg/ha/y, 6.8 × 106 t/y, 1.6% of global river transport), even though the concentrations of organic carbon in the river are not exceptionally high (mean, 4.4 mg/l dissolved, 1.4 mg/l particulate). Concentrations of ammonium (35 μg/l as N) and of nitrate (80 μg/l as N) are high given the undisturbed nature of the watershed and the high amount of runoff. The high transport rate for total nitrogen (5.7 kg/ha/y, 0.54 × 106 t/y, l.5% of global river transport) can be sustained only by high rates of nitrogen fixation within the watershed. Concentrations of soluble phosphorus are within the range expected for undisturbed river systems (20 μg/l), but concentrations of particulate phosphorus are low because the amounts of particulate matter are small and the phosphorus per unit weight of suspended matter is low. Phosphorus transport (0.75 kg/ha/y) can be accounted for easily by weathering of the parent material, even within the Guayana Shield, where weathering rates are lowest. Biological modification of nutrient and carbon fractions during transit along the main stem are minimal.

Key words

Tropical rivers river chemistry element cycling nutrient chemistry weathering 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • William M. LewisJr.
    • 1
  • James F. SaundersIII
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Limnology, Department of Environmental, Population and Organismic BiologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

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