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Press Release 11-220
U.S. Rivers and Streams Saturated With Carbon

Significant amount of carbon in land is leaking into streams and rivers, then to the atmosphere

Satellite view of the Mississippi River showing a mosaic of riverbank land-use patterns.

A satellite view of the Mississippi River shows a mosaic of riverbank land-use patterns.
Credit and Larger Version

October 16, 2011

Rivers and streams in the United States are releasing substantially more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than previously thought.

This according to researchers publishing their results in the current issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

Their findings could change the way scientists model the movement of carbon among land, water and the atmosphere.

"Direct measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations and fluxes in streams and rivers are still extremely rare," said Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research.

"This study demonstrates that both are much higher than assumed. The research should enable more predictive and precise models of carbon cycling at regional to global scales."

The researchers found that a significant amount of carbon contained in land, which first is absorbed by plants and forests through the air, is leaking into streams and rivers and then released into the atmosphere before reaching coastal waterways.

"What we are able to show is that there is a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide from streams and rivers, and that it is significant enough for terrestrial modelers to take note of it," said David Butman, a co-author of the paper and scientist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.  

He and his co-author, ecologist Peter Raymond also of Yale, analyzed data from samples of more than 4,000 rivers and streams throughout the United States, and incorporated detailed geospatial data to model the flux of carbon dioxide from water.

This release is equal to a car burning 40 billion gallons of gasoline, enough to drive back and forth to the moon 3.4 million times.

"These rivers breathe a lot of carbon," said Butman. "They are a source of carbon dioxide, just like we breathe out carbon dioxide and like smokestacks emit carbon dioxide.

"This has never been systematically estimated from a region as large as the United States."

The paper, titled "Significant Efflux of Carbon Dioxide from Streams and Rivers in the United States," also indicates that as the climate heats up there will be more rain and snow, and that an increase in precipitation will result in even more terrestrial carbon flowing into rivers and streams and being released into the atmosphere.

Any accurate estimate of carbon uptake vs. carbon released must include the carbon in streams and rivers, Butman said.

The researchers note that currently it's difficult to determine how to include this flux in regional carbon budgets, because the influence of human activity on the release of carbon dioxide into streams and rivers is still unknown.

The research was also funded by a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, a NASA Carbon & Ecosystems Program grant, and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
David DeFusco, Yale University, (203) 436-4842, david.defusco@yale.edu

Related Websites
NSF Harvard Forest LTER Site: http://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/research/lter.html

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Photo of a weir placed at NSF's Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site.
In the study, a weir was placed at NSF's Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site.
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Photo of harmless titanium dioxide tracer which is added to streams and rivers to track carbon flow.
Scientists added a harmless titanium dioxide tracer to streams and rivers to track carbon flow.
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Image showing a tangled web of stream lines derived from a data set on water flow.
Stream lines form a tangled web in this image derived from a set of data on water flow.
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Photo of one of the NSF Harvard Forest LTER sites.
A stream runs through it: one of the NSF Harvard Forest LTER site's many waterways.
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Photo of the Connecticut River in the early spring.
Early spring on the Connecticut River: scientists followed the flow of carbon along its reaches.
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