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Science and Policy: New Insights into Terrestrial, Aquatic, and Atmospheric Carbon Flow and Implications for Stormwater Management Policy

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Anthropogenic influences on the global carbon cycle have affected terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric carbon pools and flows. Accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere is recognized as a global environmental threat that is altering weather patterns, melting glaciers, changing season length and affecting species distribution. Increasing evidence suggests more dire consequences to follow including sea level rise, mass extinctions, and spread of disease, drought, and desertification.

Although other gases contribute to global warming, the vast majority of the effect is due to carbon dioxide (CO2) with the majority of this arising from combustion of fossil fuels. With few ready alternatives to fossil energy, growing energy demand from developing countries, and an increasing world population, there is no clear path to stabilization of atmospheric CO2 concentration. The general consensus is that there will not be a single solution for the problem but rather progress will be made through a variety of means that reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sequestration.

The poster will depict the previously unrecognized role of freshwater aquatic systems in the global carbon cycle. An accumulation of data from recent research indicates that rivers are net heterotrophic systems, due to the metabolism of terrestrial organic carbon that is transported to and bioavailable within the aquatic environment. Annual CO2 outgassing from global freshwater systems is on the order of one billion metric tons (Richley, 2003, Pg 329), making them significant contributors to atmospheric carbon concentrations. This new perspective on freshwater aquatic systems raises additional questions about carbon flux from terrestrial sources to the freshwater environment and the role of anthropogenic influences in this flux.

As a means to visually portray this phenomenon, graphics and text will depict carbon input into fluvial systems through biogeochemical processes such as silicate and carbonate rock weathering, soil respiration and erosion, and solubilization via groundwater. The poster will illustrate the natural and anthropogenic phenomena which affect the transfer of carbon in various forms (dissolved organic carbon, dissolved inorganic carbon, and particulate organic carbon) into fluvial systems and the subsequent fate of this carbon as sediment storage, ocean outflow, or fluvial outgassing. The aim is to illustrate evidence from a growing body of research that carbon is not passively transported via river systems to the oceans, but rather undergoes various transformations and processes along the way producing a substantive net efflux of terrestrial carbon to the atmosphere.

Poster sections will illustrate the terrestrial to aquatic to atmospheric flow model described above, as well as the storm water processes that affect terrestrial carbon input into fluvial systems. Estimates of mass flows and mass pools will be incorporated to illustrate the nature of net fluxes within this system.

A portion of the poster will illustrate the particular role of storm water in terrestrial to aquatic carbon flow and explore the notion that storm water contributes organic carbon to fluvial systems which it removes from more stable states in the terrestrial environment, fueling aquatic heterotrophy and atmospheric carbon emissions. It presents storm water management as a form of carbon management, recognizing that significant anthropogenic disturbances have led to an increase in terrestrial carbon entering fluvial systems. Evidence of the transformation of terrestrial carbon from stable to bioavailable forms in the aquatic environment will be included in the depictions.

An expanded understanding of terrestrial to aquatic to atmospheric carbon flow may have many public policy implications. Enhanced soil carbon sequestration can be expected from improved storm water management however we currently do not have adequate methods to incorporate this in the carbon accounting systems used to create value on carbon reduction. The poster considers some of the challenges in incorporating this into our present systems of carbon accounting in order to develop public policy that aligns with the scientific evidence.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2008-01-01

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