Impact of landscape disturbance on the quality of terrestrial sediment carbon in temperate streams

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9 Scopus citations


Recent studies have shown the super saturation of fluvial networks with respect to carbon dioxide, and the concept that the high carbon dioxide is at least partially the result of turnover of sediment organic carbon that ranges in age from years to millennia. Currently, there is a need for more highly resolved studies at stream and river scales that enable estimates of terrestrial carbon turnover within fluvial networks. Our objective was to develop a new isotope-based metric to estimate the quality of sediment organic carbon delivered to temperate streams and to use the new metric to estimate carbon quality across landscape disturbance gradients. Carbon quality is defined to be consistent with in-stream turnover and our metric is used to measure the labile or recalcitrant nature of the terrestrial-derived carbon within streams. Our hypothesis was that intensively-disturbed landscapes would tend to produce low quality carbon because deep, recalcitrant soil carbon would be eroded and transported to the fluvial system while moderately disturbed or undisturbed landscapes would tend to produce higher quality carbon from well-developed surface soils and litter. The hypothesis was tested by applying the new carbon quality metric to 15 temperate streams with a wide range of landscape disturbance levels. We find that our hypothesis premised on an indirect relationship between the extent of landscape disturbance and the quality of sediment carbon in streams holds true for moderate and high disturbances but not for un-disturbed forests. We explain the results based on the connectivity, or dis-connectivity, between terrestrial carbon sources and pathways for sediment transport. While pathways are typically un-limited for disturbed landscapes, the un-disturbed forests have dis-connectivity between labile carbon of the forest floor and the stream corridor. Only in the case when trees fell into the stream corridor due to severe ice storms did the quality of sediment carbon increase in the streams. We argue that as scientists continue to estimate the in-stream turnover of terrestrially-derived carbon in fluvial carbon budgets, the assumption of pathway connectivity between carbon sources to the stream should be justified.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1030-1042
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016


  • Carbon
  • Disturbance
  • Fluvial
  • Landscape
  • Sediment
  • Stream

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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