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Carbon storage in mountainous streams

Date: August 21, 2015

Research highlights the importance of headwater streams and associated riparian areas in watershed-scale carbon retention


Background and research objectives

Mountain stream below Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park (photo compliments of National Park Service).
Mountain stream below Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park (photo compliments of National Park Service).
Published research confirms downstream export of terrestrial carbon from headwaters, but few studies exist on the volume of carbon storage along stream riparian corridors. To address this knowledge gap, researchers from the Rocky Mountain Research Station and Colorado State University measured the spatial distribution of carbon pools along different valley types of headwater streams in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Estimates of riverine carbon storage represent a previously undocumented but important carbon sink.

Key findings

Results indicated that not all mountainous rivers rapidly exported carbon, and not all valley segments were equally important in carbon storage. Researchers found that low-gradient, broad valley bottoms with old-growth forest or active beaver colonies store the majority of above- and below-ground carbon. Laterally unconfined valley segments constituted <25% of total river length, but stored ~75% of the carbon. Floodplain sediment and coarse wood dominated carbon storage. Results also suggest that historical changes in riverine complexity have likely reduced carbon storage.

These findings highlight the importance of headwater streams and associated riparian areas in watershed scale carbon retention. Management to reduce effects of climate warming on headwater river corridors is important for maintaining ecosystem services such as carbon storage in mountainous watersheds.

Featured Publications

Dwire, Kathleen A. ; Wohl, Ellen E. ; Sutfin, Nicholas A. ; Bazan, Roberto A. ; Polvi-Pilgrim, Lina , 2012
Wohl, Ellen ; Dwire, Kathleen A. ; Sutfin, Nicholas ; Polvi, Lina ; Bazan, Roberto , 2012


Principal Investigators: 
Forest Service Partners: 
Roberto Bazan, Rocky Mountain Research Station
External Partners: 
Ellen Wohl, Colorado State University (CSU)
Nicholas Sutfin, CSU
Lina Polvi, CSU
Research Location: 
Rocky Mountain National Park