Metabolism, Gas Exchange, and Carbon Spiraling in Rivers

Robert O. Hall, Jennifer L. Tank, Michelle A. Baker, Emma J. Rosi-Marshall, Erin R. Hotchkiss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

129 Scopus citations


Ecosystem metabolism, that is, gross primary productivity (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER), controls organic carbon (OC) cycling in stream and river networks and is expected to vary predictably with network position. However, estimates of metabolism in small streams outnumber those from rivers such that there are limited empirical data comparing metabolism across a range of stream and river sizes. We measured metabolism in 14 rivers (discharge range 14–84 m3 s−1) in the Western and Midwestern United States (US). We estimated GPP, ER, and gas exchange rates using a Lagrangian, 2-station oxygen model solved in a Bayesian framework. GPP ranged from 0.6–22 g O2 m−2 d−1 and ER tracked GPP, suggesting that autotrophic production supports much of riverine ER in summer. Net ecosystem production, the balance between GPP and ER was 0 or greater in 4 rivers showing autotrophy on that day. River velocity and slope predicted gas exchange estimates from these 14 rivers in agreement with empirical models. Carbon turnover lengths (that is, the distance traveled before OC is mineralized to CO2) ranged from 38 to 1190 km, with the longest turnover lengths in high-sediment, arid-land rivers. We also compared estimated turnover lengths with the relative length of the river segment between major tributaries or lakes; the mean ratio of carbon turnover length to river length was 1.6, demonstrating that rivers can mineralize much of the OC load along their length at baseflow. Carbon mineralization velocities ranged from 0.05 to 0.81 m d−1, and were not different than measurements from small streams. Given high GPP relative to ER, combined with generally short OC spiraling lengths, rivers can be highly reactive with regard to OC cycling.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-86
Number of pages14
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Ecosystem respiration
  • carbon spiraling
  • ecosystem metabolism
  • gas exchange
  • gross primary production
  • rivers


Dive into the research topics of 'Metabolism, Gas Exchange, and Carbon Spiraling in Rivers'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this