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Significant efflux of carbon dioxide from streams and rivers in the United States


The evasion of carbon dioxide from inland waters was only recently included in assessments of the global carbon budget1,2,3. Present estimates of carbon dioxide release from global freshwater systems, including lakes and wetlands, range from 0.7 to 3.3 Pg C yr−1 (refs 1, 4, 5, 6, 7). However, these estimates are based on incomplete spatial coverage of carbon dioxide evasion, and an inadequate understanding of the factors controlling the efflux of carbon dioxide across large drainage networks6. Here, we estimate the amount of carbon degassed from streams and rivers in the United States using measurements of temperature, alkalinity and pH, together with high-resolution data on the morphology and surface area of these waterways. We show that streams and rivers in the US are supersaturated with carbon dioxide when compared with the atmosphere, emitting 97±32 Tg carbon each year. We further show that regionally, carbon dioxide evasion from streams and rivers is positively correlated with annual precipitation, which we attribute to climatic regulation of stream surface area, and the flushing of carbon dioxide from soils. Scaling our analysis from the US to temperate rivers between 25° N and 50° N, we estimate a release of around 0.5 Pg carbon to the atmosphere each year.

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Figure 1: Spatial distribution of USGS sampling locations and CO2 concentrations across the US.
Figure 2: Distribution of CO2 flux model parameters across stream orders in the US.
Figure 3: Precipitation, stream surface area and carbon flux relationships across regions in the US.


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Financial support for this research was provided by a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NNX07AN83h), a NASA Carbon and Ecosystems Program grant (NNX11AH68G), an NSF-CAREER grant (NSF DEB-0546153) and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Continued research support is provided by the Yale Center for Earth Observation and the US Geological Survey, Climate and Land Use Change Mission, LandCarbon Project.

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D.B. and P.A.R. conceived and designed the analysis. D.B. carried out all computations and data analysis and wrote most of the manuscript. P.A.R. supervised the research, aided in interpretation of the data and helped write the manuscript.

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Correspondence to David Butman.

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Butman, D., Raymond, P. Significant efflux of carbon dioxide from streams and rivers in the United States. Nature Geosci 4, 839–842 (2011).

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