Demonstrating benthic control of anomalous solute transport: biofilm growth interacts with substrate size.
Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 5:00 PM
In fluvial systems, biofilms are the main driver of biogeochemical transformations. Biofilms grow on most surfaces in the benthic and hyporheic regions, where they process waterborne solutes. These solutes are transported in the regional flow and their fluxes near the biofilms are controlled by local physical properties, such as head gradients and hydraulic conductivity. These properties are in turn influenced by the growth of the biofilm itself, which can clog porous media and/or develop its own network of porous space. Therefore, the residence time of a solute in proximity to biofilm surfaces, where it can be processed, should be influenced by the properties not only of the physical environment, but by that of the biofilm itself. We hypothesized that the presence of biofilms would increase residence times in the benthic and shallow subsurface regions of the stream bed. We performed controlled experiments in 4 experimental streams at Notre Dame's Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility (ND-LEEF) to quantify the interaction between substrate and biofilm in controlling anomalous solute transport. Each stream at ND-LEEF had a different substrate configuration: 2 with homogeneous substrate but with different sizes (pea gravel vs. coarse gravel) and 2 with heterogeneous substrate (alternating sections vs. well-mixed reaches). We measured the evolution of the residence time distributions in the streams by injecting rhodamine tracer (RWT) multiple times over the course of a 5 month colonization gradient. Analysis of breakthrough curves demonstrated that in addition to the influence of substrate, biofilm colonization and growth significantly influenced the residence time in the system. Specifically, as biofilms grew, the power-law exponent of the RTD decreased, i.e. the tails of the distributions became heavier, suggesting prolonged retention due to the presence of the biofilms. Although the substrate signature persisted over time, with the coarser gravel bed washing out faster than the smaller gravel bed, all streams had a similar pattern of the power law exponent decreasing exponentially over time. These results demonstrate benthic control of anomalous solute transport through the dynamic relationship and feedback between the physical and biological environments.