What global climate change could mean for leaf litter in streams and rivers

Unews, University of Utah

Carbon emissions to the atmosphere from streams and rivers are expected to increase as warmer water temperatures stimulate faster rates of organic matter breakdown.

But a new study led by University of Utah researcher Jennifer J. Follstad Shah, in collaboration with a team of 15 scientists in the U.S. and Europe, suggests these decay rates may not increase as much as expected. In fact, the study indicates average breakdown rates may increase 5 percent to 21 percent with a 1 degree to 4-degree Celsius rise in water temperature — half as much as the 10 percent to 45 percent increase predicted by metabolic theory. Mean annual water temperature for some streams and rivers is currently rising at an annual rate of about 0.01 degrees to 0.1 degrees Celsius due to changes in climate and land use.

The study “Global synthesis of the temperature sensitivity of leaf litter breakdown in streams and rivers” was published Feb. 28 in Global Change Biology.

Streams and rivers cover about 3 percent of Earth’s land surface but are an important contributor to the global carbon cycle. These waterways constitute a major habitat where organic matter such as leaf litter is transformed through physical processes and consumption by microbes and invertebrates. Some of the organic matter consumed contributes to the growth of these organisms, but a portion is ‘lost’ downstream as invertebrates tear litter into smaller pieces and some is emitted to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide through respiration.

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