(Image credited to iStockphoto / Thinkstock)

Rivers connect the highest mountains with the ocean's depth, carving up the land as they flow. En route, they transport and transform large quantities of terrestrial material, and exchange elements with the atmosphere, land and sea. In this web focus we present opinion pieces and research articles that examine the topographic, biogeochemical and cultural significance of rivers.



Rivers in transition p675


Rivers run through nearly every landscape on Earth. Ascertaining the influence of this flux on carbon dynamics is necessary for a full understanding of the climate system.



An expanded role for river networks pp678-679

Jonathan P. Benstead & David S. Leigh


Estimates of stream and river area have relied on observations at coarse resolution. Consideration of the smallest and most dynamic streams could reveal a greater role for river networks in global biogeochemical cycling than previously thought.


Books & Arts

Tributaries through time p681

Anna Armstrong


Anna Armstrong reviews Rivers: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Middleton


News & Views

Biogeochemistry: Riverine carbon unravelled p684

Anna Armstrong


Geomorphology: Tectonically twisted rivers pp688-689

Eric Kirby


Tracking diffuse, shearing deformation of continents is difficult. Numerical modelling of drainage evolution in the Southern Alps, New Zealand, suggests that rivers can act as dynamic markers of tectonic deformation over geological timescales.



Biogeochemically diverse organic matter in Alpine glaciers and its downstream fate pp710-714

Gabriel A. Singer, Christina Fasching, Linda Wilhelm, Jutta Niggemann, Peter Steier, Thorsten Dittmar & Tom J. Battin


Glaciers store and transform organic carbon, which, on release, could support downstream microbial life. An analysis of 26 glaciers in the European Alps suggests that a significant fraction of glacier organic matter is available for microbial consumption.

Dependence of riverine nitrous oxide emissions on dissolved oxygen levels pp715-718

Madeline S. Rosamond, Simon J. Thuss & Sherry L. Schiff


Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas that destroys stratospheric ozone. Measurements of nitrous oxide emissions from a Canadian river suggest that future increases in nitrate export to rivers will not necessarily lead to higher nitrous oxide emissions, but more widespread hypoxia most likely will.



River drainage patterns in the New Zealand Alps primarily controlled by plate tectonic strain pp744-748

Sébastien Castelltort, Liran Goren, Sean D. Willett, Jean-Daniel Champagnac, Frédéric Herman & Jean Braun


The persistence of dendritic drainage patterns implies that rivers reorganize after a tectonic perturbation, preserving no long-term record of that tectonic event. Numerical simulations of the evolution of drainage patterns in the Southern Alps, New Zealand, however, reveal rivers that resist reorganization and thus preserve a record of plate tectonic strain over 10 million years.


From the archives



The boundless carbon cycle

Tom J. Battin, Sebastiaan Luyssaert, Louis A. Kaplan, Anthony K. Aufdenkampe, Andreas Richter & Lars J. Tranvik


The terrestrial biosphere is assumed to take up most of the carbon on land. However, it is becoming clear that inland waters process large amounts of organic carbon and must be considered in strategies to mitigate climate change.


Books & Arts

Drinking up the Amazon

Anna Armstrong


Anna Armstrong reviews Big River Man by John Maringouin


News & Views

Earthquake hazards: Rivers, rifts and ruptures

John A. Hole


The southern San Andreas fault is due for a large earthquake. Seismic images of sediments deposited in an ancient lake overlying the southern end of the fault indicate that episodic flooding may have triggered earthquakes in the past.

Geomorphology: Co-evolution of rivers and plants

Chris Paola


River systems have changed through time; the sinuous, stable channels common today developed relatively late in Earth's history. The rock record suggests that a specific type of fixed-channel river system arose after the expansion of arborescence.


Progress Article

Sinking deltas due to human activities

James P. M. Syvitski, Albert J. Kettner, Irina Overeem, Eric W. H. Hutton, Mark T. Hannon, G. Robert Brakenridge, John Day, Charles Vörösmarty, Yoshiki Saito, Liviu Giosan & Robert J. Nicholls


Many of the world's deltas are densely populated and intensively farmed. An assessment of recent publications indicates that the majority of these deltas have been subject to intense flooding over the past decade, and that this threat will grow as global sea-level rises and as the deltas subside.



Riverine organic matter and nutrients in southeast Alaska affected by glacial coverage

Eran Hood & Durelle Scott


Dissolved organic matter and nutrients from high-latitude coastal watersheds stimulate microbial activity and primary productivity in near-shore ecosystems. A survey of southeast Alaskan watersheds suggests that the extent of glacial coverage may control the release of these nutrients to rivers and ultimately the oceans.

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

David Butman & Peter A. Raymond


Current estimates of carbon dioxide evasion from inland waters are based on incomplete spatial coverage. Streams and rivers in the United States release 97 Tg of carbon to the atmosphere each year, according to an analysis of chemical and morphological data.

Impact of transient groundwater storage on the discharge of Himalayan rivers

Christoff Andermann, Laurent Longuevergne, Stéphane Bonnet, Alain Crave, Philippe Davy & Richard Gloaguen


In the course of the transfer of precipitation into rivers, water is temporarily stored in reservoirs with different residence times. Analyses of precipitation and discharge records from Nepal suggest that in addition to snow and glacier melt and evapotranspiration, groundwater storage in a fractured basement aquifer also affects the annual discharge cycle of Himalayan rivers.

Landslide erosion coupled to tectonics and river incision

Isaac J. Larsen & David R. Montgomery


The steep topography of mountain landscapes arises from interactions between tectonic rock uplift, valley incision and landslide erosion on hillslopes. An analysis of more than 15,000 landslides in the eastern Himalaya, mapped from satellite images, shows that steep uplands primarily respond to uplift and river incision by increases in landslide erosion rates rather than by steepened hillslope angles.

Mitigating land loss in coastal Louisiana by controlled diversion of Mississippi River sand

Jeffrey A. Nittrouer, James L. Best, Christopher Brantley, Ronald W. Cash, Matthew Czapiga, Praveen Kumar & Gary Parker


The Bonnet Carré Spillway diverts floodwaters from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, and was opened for 42 days during the 2011 flood. According to measurements of the newly deposited sediments, at least 31–46% of the river's sand load was diverted into the spillway at this time, suggesting that such diversions can help mitigate coastal wetland loss.

Continuous flux of dissolved black carbon from a vanished tropical forest biome

Thorsten Dittmar, Carlos Eduardo de Rezende, Marcus Manecki, Jutta Niggemann, Alvaro Ramon Coelho Ovalle, Aron Stubbins & Marcelo Correa Bernardes


Before it was destroyed by slash and burn practices, Brazil's Atlantic Forest was one of the largest tropical forest biomes on Earth. Measurements from a river draining the region suggest that significant quantities of black carbon generated by the burning continue to be exported from the former forest.



Riverine source of Arctic Ocean mercury inferred from atmospheric observations

Jenny A. Fisher, Daniel J. Jacob, Anne L. Soerensen, Helen M. Amos, Alexandra Steffen & Elsie M. Sunderland


Human activities, including industry and mining, have increased inorganic mercury deposition in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Model simulations indicate that circumpolar rivers deliver large quantities of mercury to the Arctic Ocean during summer.

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