Role of streams in carbon dioxide emission becoming hot topic as global temperatures rise

Writer: Isabel Evelyn,
Contact: Chao Song,

As global temperatures rise, streams are becoming less capable of storing carbon and are instead releasing greater amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to new research led by a University of Georgia ecologist.

The paper, “Continental scale decrease in net ecosystem productivity in streams due to climate warming,” published May 21 in the online edition of Nature Geoscience, discusses a model designed to predict how streams and their abilities to absorb or emit carbon dioxide will be affected by rising temperatures.

Streams are part of the carbon cycle, and play a not-so-insignificant role in both removing carbon dioxide from and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, the planet warms and organic matter decomposes faster, releasing more carbon dioxide in a never-ending feedback loop.

“Recently people have started to realize the carbon flux out of the streams is an important source of that [feedback loop],” said Chao Song, a 2018 Ph.D. graduate of the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology who is now at Michigan State University. His most recent publication, a collaborative work by scientists across the continent led by Song, highlights why the role of streams should not be forgotten in the rapidly changing climate.

“Our study seeks to seal this knowledge gap, to understand how carbon from streams actually plays a role in this self-reinforcing cycle between warming and carbon dioxide being released,” he said.

Song and his colleagues created a model based on data collected from sixty-nine stream sites in six very different habitats, from arctic tundra to tropical forest. They used measures of light intensity, water temperature, and daily fluctuations of the amounts of oxygen dissolved into the streamwater to determine how sensitive to temperature the processes of primary production and respiration were for each stream.

Primary production occurs as the aquatic plants and algae use sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce carbon-based food for themselves, forming the base of the food web in streams. As they then use that food for energy, carbon dioxide is released in a process known as respiration. How much these two processes change in response to shifts in temperature determine their temperature sensitivity. If, for example, the production of algae in a stream becomes faster but the algae’s respiration does not, production has a higher temperature sensitivity because it showed a greater response to the temperature change than respiration did.

Based on previous studies, Song and colleagues expected all streams would react much the same, but what they found was quite different. Each stream had a distinct relative difference in the temperature sensitivity of production vs. respiration, and so the amount of carbon dioxide released and absorbed varied across streams as well.

Streams with more temperature-sensitive primary production exhibited a greater relative increase in primary production and carbon dioxide uptake than in respiration with temperature increases, and streams with more temperature-sensitive respiration exhibited a greater relative increase in respiration and carbon dioxide release than in primary production.

Once the model was parameterized using data from the sixty-nine streams studied, Song ran simulations to assess to what extent carbon dioxide would travel in each direction—into and out of the atmosphere—as the water warmed by 1ºC (1.8ºF.)

The results suggest that as temperatures rise, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere globally by freshwater streams will increase disproportionately to the amount taken in from the atmosphere.

“Chao had the idea to look at this [primary productivity-respiration comparison], and that was sort of the key idea or insight that allowed him to uncover this pattern initially,” said senior author Ford Ballantyne IV, an associate professor in the Odum School of Ecology. “Just [him] having that one good idea at that one point really opened up a whole new world of possibilities,” he said.

Future research may probe into the mechanics of why some streams are more sensitive than others, or include other factors, such as increased nutrient loads, that may affect stream processes and that are common in human-managed lands and streams.

Knowing how temperature changes in streams can affect the amount of carbon dioxide in the very air we breathe may be crucial to understanding how our planet will change as temperatures continue to rise.

“Society needs these questions asked,” said Amy Rosemond, a professor in the Odum School and one of the study’s coauthors. “How these findings are used will be built on with more science, but will ultimately depend on how people value freshwater systems to have any implications for how we would manage them, or manage the sources of stressors like increased temperature.”

The paper is available online at Besides Song, Ballantyne and Rosemond, the coauthors are Walter K. Dodds (Kansas State University), Janine Rüegg (Kansas State University, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), Alba Argerich (Oregon State University, University of Missouri), Christina L. Baker (University of Alaska Fairbanks), William B. Bowden (University of Vermont), Michael M. Douglas (University of Western Australia), Kaitlin J. Farrell (University of Georgia, Virginia Polytechnic), Michael B. Flinn (Murray State University), Erica A. Garcia (Charles Darwin University), Ashley M. Helton (University of Connecticut), Tamara K. Harms (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Shufang Jia (Kansas State University), Jeremy B. Jones (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Lauren E. Koenig (University of Connecticut, University of New Hampshire), John S. Kominoski (University of Georgia, Florida International University), William H. McDowell (University of New Hampshire), Damien McMaster (Charles Darwin University), Samuel P. Parker (University of Vermont), Claire M. Ruffing (Kansas State University, University of Alaska Fairbanks), Ken R. Sheehan (University of New Hampshire, United States Geological Survey), Matt T. Trentman (Kansas State University, University of Notre Dame), Matt R. Whiles (Southern Illinois University), and Wilfred M. Wollheim (University of New Hampshire).

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Scale, Consumers and Lotic Ecosystem Rates project.

A commentary by Jim Heffernan accompanied the paper in the online edition of Nature Geoscience. It can be found at

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