Lead Authors:
Deborah N. Huntzinger, Northern Arizona University
Abhishek Chatterjee, Universities Space Research Association and NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office
Contributing Authors:
David J. P. Moore, University of Arizona
Sara Ohrel, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Benjamin Poulter, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Anthony P. Walker, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
John Dunne, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
Sarah R. Cooley, Ocean Conservancy
Anna M. Michalak, Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University
Maria Tzortziou, City University of New York
Lori Bruhwiler, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory
Adam Rosenblatt, University of North Florida
Yiqi Luo, Northern Arizona University
Peter J. Marcotullio, Hunter College, City University of New York
Joellen Russell, University of Arizona
Science Lead:
Melanie A. Mayes, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Review Editor:
Tara Hudiburg, University of Idaho
Federal Liaisons:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.
John Schade, National Science Foundation
Karina V. R. Schäfer, National Science Foundation

Future of the North American Carbon Cycle

Inland waters occupy a small fraction of Earth’s surface, yet they play a major role in the global carbon cycle (Biddanda 2017; Buffam et al., 2011; see Ch. 14: Inland Waters). Intrinsically linked to human activities, inland water ecosystems are active, changing, and important regulators of carbon cycling and climate (e.g., Tranvik et al., 2009). These freshwater systems export considerable amounts of carbon from adjacent terrestrial environments to the ocean while also burying organic carbon in inland water sediments (Bauer et al., 2013). In fact, the global burial of organic carbon in these sediments exceeds organic carbon sequestration on the ocean floor (Aufdenkampe et al., 2011; Battin et al., 2009; Tranvik et al., 2009). A synthesis by Tranvik et al. (2009), with a particular focus on North America, demonstrated that global annual CO2 emissions from inland waters (e.g., lakes, impoundments, streams, and rivers) to the atmosphere are similar in magnitude to the amount of atmospheric CO2 taken up by the ocean annually. Although most lakes and rivers across a range of latitudes are reported sources of CO2 to the atmosphere (Alin and Johnson 2007; Cole et al., 2007), there is considerable regional and seasonal variability on the role of freshwater systems as net carbon sources or sinks due to differences in system size, total amount of biomass, carbon residence time, and geological and geographical setting. In North America, most studies show that Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron are CO2 sources annually, while Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are slight CO2 sinks (McKinley et al., 2011).

The role of freshwater systems in the carbon cycle and as climate regulators has changed dramatically over the years. There is high confidence that climate-induced changes in precipitation, hydrological patterns, flow and thermal regimes, and watershed characteristics will significantly affect freshwater ecosystems and their role in carbon cycling (Settele et al., 2014). Model projections of surface and bottom water temperatures of lakes, reservoirs, and rivers throughout North America consistently show an increase from 2°C to 7°C based on climate scenarios where CO2 doubles (e.g., Fang and Stefan 1999; Gooseff et al., 2005; Lehman 2002). This warming is likely to extend and intensify thermal stratification in lakes, resulting in oxygen deficiency and increasing organic carbon sequestration and burial while favoring methanogenesis and enhanced CH4 emissions from lakes (Romero-Lankao et al., 2014; Tranvik et al., 2009; Wilhelm and Adrian 2007). Freshwater systems at high altitude and high latitude, including alpine and Arctic streams and lakes, are particularly vulnerable to direct climate effects, especially rising temperatures (Settele et al., 2014). Warming and decreased ice cover at high latitudes are expected to affect lake stratification and mixing regimes (Vincent 2009). These factors could shift some northern hardwater lakes from being substantial sources to net sinks of atmospheric CO2. Reduced ice cover also can decrease CO2 accumulation under the ice, increasing spring and summer pH and enhancing the chemical uptake of CO2 (Finlay et al., 2015). Campeau and Del Giorgio (2014) suggested that the current role of boreal fluvial networks as major landscape sources of carbon (CO2 and CH4) is likely to expand with climate change, mainly driven by large increases in fluvial CH4 emissions in response to changes in water temperature and in-stream metabolism. Based on CO2 doubling scenarios from several global circulation models, water levels in the Great Lakes are expected to decline and the frequency of intense storm events is expected to increase. These events, along with warmer water temperatures, are projected to alter the timing and quality of runoff and nutrient loading, change light conditions, and increase lake stratification (Angel and Kunkel 2010; Jiménez Cisneros et al., 2014; Watson et al., 2000), consequently affecting primary production and respiration rates.

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