The Flow Regime of Function: Influence of flow changes on biogeochemical processes in streams

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Virginia Tech

Streams are ecosystems organized by disturbance. One of the most frequent disturbances within a stream is elevated flow. Elevated flow can both stimulate ecosystem processes and impede them. Consequently, flow plays a critical role in shifting the dominant stream function between biological transformation and physical transportation of materials. To garner further insight into the complex interactions of stream function and flow, I assessed the influence of elevated flow and flow disturbances on stream metabolism. To do so, I analyzed five years of dissolved oxygen data from an urban- and agriculturallyinfluenced stream to estimate metabolism. Stream metabolism is estimated from the production (gross primary production; GPP) and consumption (ecosystem respiration; ER) of dissolved oxygen. With these data, I evaluated how low and elevated flows differentially impact water quality (e.g., turbidity, conductivity) and metabolism using segmented metabolism- and concentration- discharge analyses. I found that GPP declined at varying rates across discharge, and ER decreased at lower flows but became constant at higher flows. Net ecosystem production (NEP; = GPP - ER) reflected the divergence of GPP and ER and was unchanging at lower flows, but declined at higher discharge. These C-Q patterns can consequently influence or be influenced by changes in metabolism. I coupled metabolism-Q and C-Q trends to examine linked flow-induced changes to physicochemical parameters and metabolism. Parameters related to metabolism (e.g., turbidity and GPP, pH and NEP) frequently followed coupled trends. To investigate metabolic recovery dynamics (i.e., resistance and resilience) following flow disturbances, I analyzed metabolic responses to 15 isolated flow events and identified the antecedent conditions or disturbance characteristics that most contributed to recovery dynamics. ER was both more resistant and resilient than GPP. GPP took longer to recover (1 to >9 days, mean = 2.5) than ER (1 to 2 days, mean = 1.1). ER resistance was strongly correlated with the intensity of the flow event, whereas GPP was not, suggesting that GPP responds similarly to flow disturbances, regardless of the magnitude of flow event. Flow may be the most frequent disturbance experienced by streams. However, streams are exposed to a multitude of other disturbances; here I also highlight how anthropogenic alterations to streams – namely, burying a stream underground – can change biogeochemical function. This thesis proposes novel frameworks to explore the nexus of flow, anthropogenic disturbances, and stream function, and thereby to further our understanding of the complex relationship between streams and disturbances.

Disturbance, Stream metabolism, flow, resistance, resilience