Rivers give off stealth carbon at night

Nature
The river Paktajokka in Northern Sweden filled with filamentous algae

Algae fills the Paktajokka River in northern Sweden. Photosynthesis in the river means that its daytime and night-time carbon emissions differ substantially. Credit: Gerard Rocher-Ros

Biogeochemistry

Rivers give off stealth carbon at night

Emissions made under cover of darkness account for much of the carbon flux from flowing waters.

Rivers and streams might be giving off more carbon dioxide than had previously been thought — because they’re doing it at night when nobody had been looking.

Flowing waters are an important source of carbon to the atmosphere, but researchers haven’t had a good handle on how much carbon rivers emit. That’s in part because a river’s carbon emissions vary greatly over a 24-hour period, and scientists typically collect samples of river water only during the day — meaning they miss carbon fluxes at night.

Lluís Gómez-Gener at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Gerard Rocher-Ros at Umeå University in Sweden and their colleagues analysed round-the-clock data gathered over the past few years by sensors in 66 rivers around the world. The sensors indicated that, on average, rivers emitted 27% more carbon dioxide at night than during the day.

The authors estimate that, globally, carbon emissions from rivers are roughly 35% higher than the previous estimates that were based on only daytime sampling.

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