Sources of and processes controlling CO2 emissions change with the size of streams and rivers


Carbon dioxide (CO2) evasion from streams and rivers to the atmosphere represents a substantial flux in the global carbon cycle1,2,3. The proportions of CO2 emitted from streams and rivers that come from terrestrially derived CO2 or from CO2 produced within freshwater ecosystems through aquatic metabolism are not well quantified. Here we estimated CO2 emissions from running waters in the contiguous United States, based on freshwater chemical and physical characteristics and modelled gas transfer velocities at 1463 United States Geological Survey monitoring sites. We then assessed CO2 production from aquatic metabolism, compiled from previously published measurements of net ecosystem production from 187 streams and rivers across the contiguous United States. We find that CO2 produced by aquatic metabolism contributes about 28% of CO2 evasion from streams and rivers with flows between 0.0001 and 19,000 m3 s−1. We mathematically modelled CO2 flux from groundwater into running waters along a stream–river continuum to evaluate the relationship between stream size and CO2 source. Terrestrially derived CO2 dominates emissions from small streams, and the percentage of CO2 emissions from aquatic metabolism increases with stream size. We suggest that the relative role of rivers as conduits for terrestrial CO2 efflux and as reactors mineralizing terrestrial organic carbon is a function of their size and connectivity with landscapes.

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Figure 1: CO2 emissions and internal CO2 production in streams and rivers of the contiguous United States.
Figure 2: Modelled CO2 fluxes and groundwater input rates along a stream–river continuum.
Figure 3: Sources and magnitude of net CO2 emissions along a theoretical stream–river continuum.


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We thank P. Raymond for advice on CO2 emissions estimates. This work was supported by Kempestiftelserna.

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E.R.H. developed the ideas for this analysis and conceptual model in collaboration with J.Karlsson, R.O.H., R.A.S., J.Klaminder, M.R. and H.L. R.O.H. and E.R.H. derived the lateral inputs model and reviewed published metabolism estimates. D.B. provided CO2 and k600 estimates. E.R.H. analysed the data. E.R.H. wrote the paper with assistance from J.Karlsson, R.O.H., R.A.S., D.B., J.Klaminder, H.L. and M.R.

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Correspondence to E. R. Hotchkiss.

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Hotchkiss, E., Hall Jr, R., Sponseller, R. et al. Sources of and processes controlling CO2 emissions change with the size of streams and rivers. Nature Geosci 8, 696–699 (2015).

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