Leaky savannas: the significance of lateral carbon fluxes in the seasonal tropics

Sarah Tweed, Marc LeBlanc, Adrian Bass, Glenn Harrington, Niels Munksgaard, Michael Bird

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    9 Citations (Scopus)


    Globally, dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) accounts for more than half the annual flux of carbon exported from terrestrial ecosystems via rivers. Here, we assess the relative influences of biogeochemical and hydrological processes on DIC fluxes exported from a tropical river catchment characterized by distinct land cover, climate and geology transition from the wet tropical mountains to the low-lying savanna plains. Processes controlling changes in river DIC were investigated using dissolved organic carbon, particulate organic carbon and DIC concentrations and stable isotope ratios of DIC (δ13CDIC) at two time scales: seasonal and diel. The recently developed Isotopic Continuous Dissolved Inorganic Carbon Analyser was used to measure diel DIC concentration and δ13CDIC changes at a 15-min temporal resolution. Results highlight the predominance of biologically mediated processes (photosynthesis and respiration) controlling diel changes in DIC. These resulted in DIC concentrations varying between 3.55 and 3.82mg/l and δ13CDIC values ranging from -19.7±0.31‰ to -17.1±0.08‰. In contrast, at the seasonal scale, we observed wet season DIC variations predominantly from mixing processes and dry season DIC variations due to both mixing processes and biological processes. The observed wet season increases in DIC concentrations (by 6.81mg/l) and δ13CDIC values of river water (by 5.4‰) largely result from proportional increases in subsurface inflows from the savanna plains (C4 vegetation) region relative to inflows from the rainforest (C3 vegetation) highlands. The high DIC river load during the wet season resulted in the transfer of 97% of the annual river carbon load. Therefore, in this gaining river, there are significant seasonal variations in both the hydrological and carbon cycles, and there is evidence of substantial coupling between the carbon cycles of the terrestrial and the fluvial environments. Recent identification of a substantial carbon sink in the savannas of northern Australia during wetter years in the recent past does not take into account the possibility of a substantial, rapid, lateral flux of carbon to rivers and back to the atmosphere.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)873-887
    Number of pages15
    JournalHydrological Processes
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2016


    • Carbon cycle
    • Diel
    • Dissolved inorganic carbon
    • Savanna
    • Seasonal
    • Tropics


    Dive into the research topics of 'Leaky savannas: the significance of lateral carbon fluxes in the seasonal tropics'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this