Sediment–Water Surface Area Along Rivers: Water Column Versus Benthic
Aquatic ecosystems have two distinct zones: the water column and benthic zone. Although the benthic zone has received considerable attention, recent studies have found the water column capable of accounting for a majority of whole ecosystem processes in rivers. The relative role of these zones inevitably varies across a size continuum of rivers, from headwaters to large transcontinental systems. A fundamental question in aquatic science is where along this size continuum do ecosystem processes potentially shift from occurring largely in the benthic zone to largely in the water column? Sediment structures the physical template of the benthic and water column zones of rivers and the contact area between water and sediment mediates ecological, geochemical, and physical processes. High concentrations of suspended sediments are hypothesized to cause a shift from benthic to water column dominance in rivers. We developed an analytical model for the contact area between surface water and all sediment particles in benthic and water column volumes. The model was implemented with empirical data along the main stem of major US rivers. The ratio of water column to benthic sediment contact area scaled as a power function of watershed area. There was more sediment–water contact area in the water column than the benthic zone in rivers equal to or greater than 5th to 9th order depending on the river basin. This suggests material processing could be occurring largely in the water column in rivers greater than 5th order. However, dams and variation in discharge caused rivers to oscillate between water column and benthic dominance over time and space.
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