Long-term Trends in Particulate Organic Carbon from a Low-Gradient Autotrophic Watershed

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
James Fox, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, United States and William I Ford III, USDA ARS, Pendleton, OR, United States
Recent insights from low-gradient streams dominated by fine surficial sediments have shown fluvial organic matter dynamics are governed by coupled hydrologic and biotic controls at event to seasonal timescales. Notwithstanding the importance of shorter timescales, quantity and quality of carbon in stream ecosystems at annual and decadal scales is of increased interest in order to understand if stream ecosystems are net stores or sinks of carbon and how stream carbon behaves under dynamic climate conditions. As part of an ongoing study in a low-gradient, agricultural watershed in the Bluegrass Region of Central Kentucky, an eight year dataset of transported particulate organic carbon (POC) was analyzed for the present study. The objective was to investigate if POC dynamics at multi-year timescales are governed by biotic or hydrologic processes. A statistical analysis using Empirical Mode Decomposition was performed on an 8 year dataset of transported sediment carbon, temperature, and log-transformed flowrates at the watershed outlet. Simulations from a previously validated, process-based, organic carbon model were utilized as further verification of drivers. Results from the analysis suggest that a 4 degree Celsius mean annual temperature shift corresponds to a 63% increase in organic carbon content at the main-stem, third order outlet and a 33% increase in organic carbon content at the main-stem inlet. Model and stable isotope results for the 8 year study support that long-term increases in organic carbon concentration are governed by biotic growth and humification of algal biomass in which increasing annual temperatures promote increased organic carbon production, relative to ecosystem respiration. This result contradicts conventional wisdom, suggesting projected warming trends will shift autotrophic freshwater systems to net heterotrophic, which has significant implications for the role of benthic stream ecosystems under changing climate conditions. Future work is needed to extrapolate the extent of this long-term sequestration at broader spatial scales in order to quantify the role of stream ecosystems in comprehensive carbon budgets and to better understand the net impact on benthic food web dynamics.