Carbon dynamics of river corridors and the effects of human alterations

Ellen Wohl, Robert O. Hall, Katherine B. Lininger, Nicholas A. Sutfin, David M. Walters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Research in stream metabolism, gas exchange, and sediment dynamics indicates that rivers are an active component of the global carbon cycle and that river form and process can influence partitioning of terrestrially derived carbon among the atmosphere, geosphere, and ocean. Here we develop a conceptual model of carbon dynamics (inputs, outputs, and storage of organic carbon) within a river corridor, which includes the active channel and the riparian zone. The exchange of carbon from the channel to the riparian zone represents potential for storage of transported carbon not included in the “active pipe” model of organic carbon (OC) dynamics in freshwater systems. The active pipe model recognizes that river processes influence carbon dynamics, but focuses on CO2 emissions from the channel and eventual delivery to the ocean. We also review how human activities directly and indirectly alter carbon dynamics within river corridors. We propose that dams create the most significant alteration of carbon dynamics within a channel, but that alteration of riparian zones, including the reduction of lateral connectivity between the channel and riparian zone, constitutes the most substantial change of carbon dynamics in river corridors. We argue that the morphology and processes of a river corridor regulate the ability to store, transform, and transport OC, and that people are pervasive modifiers of river morphology and processes. The net effect of most human activities, with the notable exception of reservoir construction, appears to be that of reducing the ability of river corridors to store OC within biota and sediment, which effectively converts river corridors to OC sources rather than OC sinks. We conclude by summarizing knowledge gaps in OC dynamics and the implications of our findings for managing OC dynamics within river corridors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)379-409
Number of pages31
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2017


  • active channel
  • carbon
  • dam
  • land use
  • riparian zone
  • river


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