Fast-moving rivers release more carbon dioxide like humans: Study

Scientists have discovered a surprising similarity between rivers and humans: both release more carbon dioxide when they work hard.

PTI| Updated: Nov 16, 2015, 20:49 PM IST

London: Scientists have discovered a surprising similarity between rivers and humans: both release more carbon dioxide when they work hard.

When people are physically active, their lungs release more carbon dioxide than when they are at rest. But researchers from the University of Glasgow have found for the first time that fast-moving rivers work in a similar manner, releasing more gas than slower streams.

A team of researchers from the University's School of Geographical and Earth Sciences describe their findings from several years of testing around rivers in two locations in Scotland and four in the Peruvian Amazon.

The research provides more insight into the carbon cycle, the complex process by which the element carbon is used and transferred between living things, the land, bodies of water and the atmosphere.

"Detailed understanding of the carbon cycle is crucial for determining the impact of human activity on the world's climate, but the role of rivers in releasing carbon into the atmosphere has been given less attention overall by scientists than the impact of the same process in seas and oceans," according to the research.

University of Glasgow student Hazel Long and researcher Leena Vihermaa used infrared gas analysers to quantify the amount of carbon dioxide released by the rivers in each location. A separate flow metre measured the velocity of the water streaming past the detector.

"Carbon is absorbed into waterways through a wide range of sources, including soil and decaying organic material, which are picked up as rivers flow from the land to the sea," Hazel said.

"Recently, the scientific community has begun paying closer attention to the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere along the way, and it has turned out to be a very significant amount, as much as two trillion kilogrammes of carbon each year," Hazel added.

"What we've discovered is that the rate of that carbon release is tied closely to the velocity of the water in the river. Although we measured the carbon released by rivers separated by thousands of miles, the results were similar for each. We found that the faster the waters moved, the more carbon they released," Hazel added.

The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.