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Metabolism, Gas Exchange, and Carbon Spiraling in Rivers

Abstract

Ecosystem metabolism, that is, gross primary productivity (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER), controls organic carbon (OC) cycling in stream and river networks and is expected to vary predictably with network position. However, estimates of metabolism in small streams outnumber those from rivers such that there are limited empirical data comparing metabolism across a range of stream and river sizes. We measured metabolism in 14 rivers (discharge range 14–84 m3 s−1) in the Western and Midwestern United States (US). We estimated GPP, ER, and gas exchange rates using a Lagrangian, 2-station oxygen model solved in a Bayesian framework. GPP ranged from 0.6–22 g O2 m−2 d−1 and ER tracked GPP, suggesting that autotrophic production supports much of riverine ER in summer. Net ecosystem production, the balance between GPP and ER was 0 or greater in 4 rivers showing autotrophy on that day. River velocity and slope predicted gas exchange estimates from these 14 rivers in agreement with empirical models. Carbon turnover lengths (that is, the distance traveled before OC is mineralized to CO2) ranged from 38 to 1190 km, with the longest turnover lengths in high-sediment, arid-land rivers. We also compared estimated turnover lengths with the relative length of the river segment between major tributaries or lakes; the mean ratio of carbon turnover length to river length was 1.6, demonstrating that rivers can mineralize much of the OC load along their length at baseflow. Carbon mineralization velocities ranged from 0.05 to 0.81 m d−1, and were not different than measurements from small streams. Given high GPP relative to ER, combined with generally short OC spiraling lengths, rivers can be highly reactive with regard to OC cycling.

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Acknowledgements

We heartily thank the River Gypsies, our trusty band of hard workers who helped immensely in our field campaigns between 2010 and 2012: CD Baxter, HA Bechtold, K Dahl, J Davis, LA Genzoli, MR Grace, SA Gregory, B Hanrahan, CF Johnson, D Kincaid, U Mahl, MM Miller, JD Ostermiller, D Oviedo, JD Reed, AJ Reisinger, T Royer, C Ruiz, E Salmon-Taylor, AL Saville, A Shogren, MR Schroer, MR Shupryt, and IJ Washbourne. U Mahl and I Washbourne measured solute concentrations. S. Ye calculated the lengths of rivers. RA Payn helped define the 2-station model. HL Madinger analyzed argon concentrations. We thank DE Schindler and two anonymous reviewers for comments greatly improving this paper. We also gratefully acknowledge a collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation that supported our research (DEB 09-21598, 09-22153, 09-22118, 10-07807).

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Correspondence to Robert O. Hall Jr..

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ROH designed the study, conducted fieldwork, analyzed data, and wrote first draft of the paper. JLT, MAB, and EJR-M designed the study, conducted fieldwork, and wrote the paper. ERH conducted field and lab work and wrote the paper.

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Hall, R.O., Tank, J.L., Baker, M.A. et al. Metabolism, Gas Exchange, and Carbon Spiraling in Rivers. Ecosystems 19, 73–86 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-015-9918-1

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Keywords

  • rivers
  • gross primary production
  • Ecosystem respiration
  • carbon spiraling
  • gas exchange
  • ecosystem metabolism