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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Ramie Wilkerson (ORNL) for water chemistry analyses, Tilden Myers (NOAA) for barometric pressure data, and Paul Hanson (ORNL) for above forest canopy PAR data. PAR data above the forest canopy were obtained from the Walker Branch Throughfall Displacement Experiment (TDE) Data Archive (http://www.tde.ornl.gov/tdedata.html) funded by the Program for Ecosystem Research, Environmental Sciences Division, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, U.S. Department of Energy. Comments of Jon Cole and two anonymous reviewers greatly improved an earlier version of this manuscript. This project was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Program for Ecosystem Research, in the Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research and by the Campus Research Board of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by the University of Tennessee-Battelle LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy under contract DE-AC05-00OR22725.

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Correspondence to Brian J. Roberts.

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Roberts, B.J., Mulholland, P.J. & Hill, W.R. Multiple Scales of Temporal Variability in Ecosystem Metabolism Rates: Results from 2 Years of Continuous Monitoring in a Forested Headwater Stream. Ecosystems 10, 588–606 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-007-9059-2

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Keywords

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