Connectivity Drives Function: Carbon and Nitrogen Dynamics in a Floodplain-Aquifer Ecosystem

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Appling, Alison Paige


Bernhardt, Emily S
Jackson, Robert B

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Rivers interact with their valleys from headwaters to mouth, but nowhere as dynamically as in their floodplains. Rivers deliver water, sediments, and solutes onto the floodplain land surface, and the land in turn supplies solutes, leaves, and woody debris to the channel. These reciprocal exchanges maintain both aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity and productivity. In this dissertation I examine river-floodplain exchanges on the well-studied Nyack Floodplain, a dynamic, gravel-bedded floodplain along the Middle Fork Flathead River in the mountains of northwest Montana. I quantify exchanges at multiple timescales, from moments to centuries, to better understand how connectivity between aquatic and terrestrial habitats shapes their ecology.

I first address connectivity in the context of a long-standing question in ecosystem ecology: What determines the rate of ecosystem development during primary succession? Rivers have an immediate effect on floodplains when scouring floods remove vegetation and nutrients such as nitrogen (N) and leave only barren soils, but they might also affect the ensuing primary succession through the gradual delivery of N and other materials to floodplain soils. I quantify N inputs to successional floodplain forest soils of the Nyack Floodplain and find that sediment deposition by river flood water is the dominant source of N to soils, with lesser contributions from dissolved N in the river, biological N fixation, and atmospheric deposition. I also synthesize published rates of soil N accumulation in floodplain and non-floodplain primary-successional systems around the world, and I find that western floodplains often accumulate soil N faster than non-floodplain primary successional systems. My results collectively point to the importance of riverine N inputs in accelerating ecosystem development during floodplain primary succession.

I next investigate the role of river-floodplain exchanges in shaping the spatial distribution of a suite of soil properties. Even after flood waters have receded, dissolved N, carbon (C), and moisture could be delivered from the river to floodplain soils via belowground water flow. Alternatively, C inputs and N withdrawals by floodplain vegetation might be a dominant influence on soil properties. To test these hypotheses, I excavated and sampled soil pits from the soil surface to the water table (50-270 cm) under forests, meadows, and gravel bars of the Nyack Floodplain. Near-surface soils had C and N pools and N flux rates that varied predictably with vegetation cover, but soil properties below ~50 cm reflected influence by neither vegetation cover nor aquifer delivery. Instead, soil properties at these depths appear to relate to soil texture, which in turn is structured by the river's erosional and depositional activities. This finding suggests the revised hypothesis that soil properties in gravel-bedded alluvial floodplains may depend more on the decadal-scale geomorphic influences of floods than on short-term vertical interactions with floodplain vegetation or aquifer water.

Lastly, I explore the potential sources of organic C to the diverse and active community of aquatic organisms in the floodplain aquifer, where the lack of light prohibits in-situ organic C production by photosynthesis. I quantify floodplain carbon pools and the fluxes of organic carbon connecting the aquifer, river, and overlying forest. Spring flood waters infiltrating the soil are responsible for the largest dissolved carbon flux into the aquifer, while very large floods are essential for the other major C input, the burial of woody carbon in the aquifer. These findings emphasize the importance of a dynamic river hydrograph - in particular, annual floods and extreme annual floods - in delivering organic C to the aquifer community.

Overall, this dissertation draws our attention not just to the current exchanges of C, N, water, and sediment but to the episodic nature of those exchanges. To fully understand floodplain ecosystems, we have to consider not just present-day interactions but also the legacies of past floods and their roles in delivering solutes, eroding forests, depositing sediments, and physically shaping the floodplain environment.








Ecology, Biogeochemistry, Soil sciences, Aquifer, Carbon, Middle Fork Flathead River, Nitrogen, Nyack Floodplain, Succession



Appling, Alison Paige (2012). Connectivity Drives Function: Carbon and Nitrogen Dynamics in a Floodplain-Aquifer Ecosystem. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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