Streams play a key role in the global carbon cycle. The balance between carbon intake through photosynthesis and carbon release via respiration influences carbon emissions from streams and depends on temperature. However, the lack of a comprehensive analysis of the temperature sensitivity of the metabolic balance in inland waters across latitudes and local climate conditions hinders an accurate projection of carbon emissions in a warmer future. Here, we use a model of diel dissolved oxygen dynamics, combined with high-frequency measurements of dissolved oxygen, light and temperature, to estimate the temperature sensitivities of gross primary production and ecosystem respiration in streams across six biomes, from the tropics to the arctic tundra. We find that the change in metabolic balance, that is, the ratio of gross primary production to ecosystem respiration, is a function of stream temperature and current metabolic balance. Applying this relationship to the global compilation of stream metabolism data, we find that a 1 °C increase in stream temperature leads to a convergence of metabolic balance and to a 23.6% overall decline in net ecosystem productivity across the streams studied. We suggest that if the relationship holds for similarly sized streams around the globe, the warming-induced shifts in metabolic balance will result in an increase of 0.0194 Pg carbon emitted from such streams every year.

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The authors thank K. Gido for his contribution in obtaining funding and designing the field experiments. K. Gido, J. Drake, C. Osenberg and J. Minucci provided comments on earlier versions of this paper. Georgia Advanced Computing Resource Center provided the computing facility. This study was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF, grant EF-1258994) and is part of the Scale, Consumers and Lotic Ecosystem Rates project supported by NSF grant EF-1065255. Data collection at each site was supported by NSF grants EF-1065286, EF-1065055, EF-1065682, EF-1065267, EF-1064998 and EF-1065377, and the Northern Australian Environmental Resources Hub of the National Environmental Science Program.

Author information


  1. Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA

    • Chao Song
    • , Kaitlin J. Farrell
    • , John S. Kominoski
    • , Amy D. Rosemond
    •  & Ford Ballantyne IV
  2. Division of Biology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA

    • Walter K. Dodds
    • , Janine Rüegg
    • , Shufang Jia
    • , Claire M. Ruffing
    •  & Matt T. Trentman
  3. Stream Biofilm and Ecosystem Research Laboratory, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Janine Rüegg
  4. Department of Forest Engineering, Resources, and Management, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA

    • Alba Argerich
  5. School of Natural Resources, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA

    • Alba Argerich
  6. Department of Biology and Wildlife and Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, USA

    • Christina L. Baker
    • , Tamara K. Harms
    • , Jeremy B. Jones
    •  & Claire M. Ruffing
  7. Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, USA

    • William B. Bowden
    •  & Samuel P. Parker
  8. School of Biological Sciences, and School of Agriculture and Environment, University of Western Australia, Perth, WA, Australia

    • Michael M. Douglas
  9. Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA

    • Kaitlin J. Farrell
  10. Biological Sciences, Murray State University, Murray, KY, USA

    • Michael B. Flinn
  11. Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

    • Erica A. Garcia
    •  & Damien McMaster
  12. Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA

    • Ashley M. Helton
    •  & Lauren E. Koenig
  13. Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, USA

    • Lauren E. Koenig
    • , William H. McDowell
    • , Ken R. Sheehan
    •  & Wilfred M. Wollheim
  14. Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA

    • John S. Kominoski
  15. Southwest Biological Science Center, United States Geological Survey, Flagstaff, AZ, USA

    • Ken R. Sheehan
  16. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA

    • Matt T. Trentman
  17. Department of Zoology and Center for Ecology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, USA

    • Matt R. Whiles


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C.S. and F.B. conceived the modelling approach to estimating temperature sensitivity. C.S. performed metabolism modelling, conducted the data analyses, and wrote the manuscript. W.K.D., J.R., A.A., W.B.B., M.M.D., M.B.F., E.A.G., A.M.H., T.K.H., J.B.J., J.S.K., W.H.M., A.D.R., M.R.W., W.M.W. and F.B. designed the field experiments. W.K.D., A.A., W.B.B., M.B.F., T.K.H., J.B.J., J.S.K., W.H.M., A.D.R., M.R.W., W.M.W. and F.B. obtained funding. J.R., A.A., C.L.B., K.J.F., E.A.G., L.E.K., D.M., S.P.P., C.M.R., K.R.S. and M.T.T. collected the data. S.J. and J.R. managed the database. All authors provided feedback on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chao Song.

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