Aquatic Sciences

, Volume 74, Issue 1, pp 15–29 | Cite as

The metabolism of aquatic ecosystems: history, applications, and future challenges

  • Peter A. Staehr
  • Jeremy M. Testa
  • W. Michael Kemp
  • Jon J. Cole
  • Kaj Sand-Jensen
  • Stephen V. Smith


Measurements of the production and consumption of organic material have been a focus of aquatic science for more than 80 years. Over the last century, a variety of approaches have been developed and employed for measuring rates of gross primary production (Pg), respiration (R), and net ecosystem production (Pn = Pg − R) within aquatic ecosystems. Here, we reconsider the range of approaches and applications for ecosystem metabolism measurements, and suggest ways by which such studies can continue to contribute to aquatic ecology. This paper reviews past and contemporary studies of aquatic ecosystem-level metabolism to identify their role in understanding and managing aquatic systems. We identify four broad research objectives that have motivated ecosystem metabolism studies: (1) quantifying magnitude and variability of metabolic rates for cross-system comparison, (2) estimating organic matter transfer between adjacent systems or subsystems, (3) measuring ecosystem-scale responses to perturbation, both natural and anthropogenic, and (4) quantifying and calibrating models of biogeochemical processes and trophic networks. The magnitudes of whole-system gross primary production, respiration and net ecosystem production rates vary among aquatic environments and are partly constrained by the chosen methodology. We argue that measurements of ecosystem metabolism should be a vital component of routine monitoring at larger scales in the aquatic environment using existing flexible, precise, and durable sensor technologies. Current and future aquatic ecosystem studies will benefit from application of new methods for metabolism measurements, which facilitate integration of process measurements and calibration of models for addressing fundamental questions involving ecosystem-scale processes.


Aquatic ecosystems Metabolism Methods History Applications Future 



This paper was supported by (1-for P.A. Staehr) the Danish Natural Research Council, STENO grant no 272-05-0277, a Copenhagen faculty research grant no 10-08716, and the Danish Centre for lake restoration (CLEAR); (2-for J.M. Testa and W.M. Kemp) the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Hypoxia Research Program (CHRP; CHRP-NAO7NOS4780191), the United States National Science Foundation Chesapeake Bay Environmental Observatory (CBEO; CBEO-3 BERS-0618986), and by the State of Maryland Department of Natural Resources (K00B920002). We are thankful to Nathaniel E. Ostrom for comments on the methods section. This is contribution #4497 from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Supplementary material

27_2011_199_MOESM1_ESM.doc (103 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 103 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Basel AG 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter A. Staehr
    • 1
  • Jeremy M. Testa
    • 2
  • W. Michael Kemp
    • 2
  • Jon J. Cole
    • 3
  • Kaj Sand-Jensen
    • 4
  • Stephen V. Smith
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Marine Ecology, National Environmental Research InstituteAarhus UniversityRoskildeDenmark
  2. 2.Horn Point Laboratory, Center for Environmental ScienceUniversity of MarylandCambridgeUSA
  3. 3.Cary Institute of Ecosystem StudiesMillbrookUSA
  4. 4.Freshwater Biological LaboratoryUniversity of CopenhagenHillerødDenmark
  5. 5.Departamento de GeologíaCentro de Investigación Cientifica y de Educación Superior de EnsenadaEnsenadaMexico

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