Elucidating Temporal Variability in Organic Matter Sources and Cycling in Tropical Rivers

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Elucidating Temporal Variability in Organic Matter Sources and Cycling in Tropical Rivers

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Title: Elucidating Temporal Variability in Organic Matter Sources and Cycling in Tropical Rivers
Author: Ellis, Erin Elizabeth
Abstract: Tropical rivers are large sources of carbon to the atmosphere and the ocean. The composition of riverine organic matter (OM) affects the size of these fluxes by governing how much carbon will be returned to the atmosphere while in transit versus exported to the ocean, where carbon can be permanently buried in marine sediments. Carbon isotopes coupled with biomarker measurements are powerful tools to elucidate the sources and cycling of OM in rivers, yet few studies have employed them in the tropics. Here I use carbon isotopes (stable and radiocarbon) and biomarker measurements of higher plants and soils to address the following topics: sources of organic carbon respired in rivers; terrestrial OM sources to rivers; the age of riverine OM. In the Amazon Basin, in situ respiration rates are high enough to support the high carbon dioxide gas evasion rates occurring in many white-water rivers. C<sub>4</sub> grasses, C<sub>3</sub> plants, and phytoplankton fuel respiration, with phytoplankton being important during the low-water season. On the mainstem, C<sub>4</sub> grasses are an important substrate for respiration during the rising-water stage, but other sources dominate during falling water. In the Mekong Basin, vascular plants contribute to 15-76 percent of the particulate organic carbon (POC) exported by the river, with phytoplankton and higher plants dominating OM composition during the dry and rainy seasons, respectively. The age of lignin exported by the Mekong is consistently young (produced within the last 15 years), and it cycles amidst POC of varying ages, ranging from contemporary during the rainy season, to over 3,000 years old during the rising-water period. The aged signal observed during the dry period is likely due to the increasing influence from carbon derived from the Upper Basin (the Chinese mountains and the Tibetan Plateau), whereas the young rainy-season values reflect carbon derived from the Lower Basin. Seasonal variability in the composition of particulate lignin corroborates these findings. Finally, the highest concentrations of branched tetraether lipids were found in floodplains and lake beds, suggesting that anaerobic environments may be a significant source of these biomarkers to the river, with production likely occurring within the river.
Description: Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Washington, 2012
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1773/20502
Author requested restriction: Delay release for 2 years -- then make Open Access
Date available: 2014-09-03

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