Nature Communications: Superlinear scaling of riverine biogeochemical function with watershed size

River networks regulate carbon and nutrient exchange between continents, atmosphere, and oceans. However, contributions of riverine processing are poorly constrained at continental scales. Scaling relationships of cumulative biogeochemical function with watershed size (allometric scaling) provide an approach for quantifying the contributions of fluvial networks in the Earth system. Here we show that allometric scaling of cumulative riverine function with watershed area ranges from linear to superlinear, with scaling exponents constrained by network shape, hydrological conditions, and biogeochemical process rates. Allometric scaling is superlinear for processes that are largely independent of substrate concentration (e.g., gross primary production) due to superlinear scaling of river network surface area with watershed area. Allometric scaling for typically substrate-limited processes (e.g., denitrification) is linear in river networks with high biogeochemical activity or low river discharge but becomes increasingly superlinear under lower biogeochemical activity or high discharge, conditions that are widely prevalent in river networks. The frequent occurrence of superlinear scaling indicates that biogeochemical activity in large rivers contributes disproportionately to the function of river networks in the Earth system. River networks play an important role in biogeochemical processes of the earth system. Here the authors show that cumulative river network function increases faster than watershed size for many biogeochemical processes, particularly at higher river flow, indicating large rivers contribute disproportionately to network function in the Earth System.

Wollheim, W.M., Harms, T.K., Robison, A.L. et al. Superlinear scaling of riverine biogeochemical function with watershed size. Nat Commun 13, 1230 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-28630-z