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Global extent of rivers and streams

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Science  10 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6402, pp. 585-588
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0636

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Expanding the role of rivers

The surfaces of rivers and streams are interfaces for a host of chemical exchanges with the atmosphere and biosphere. For instance, carbon dioxide outgassing from rivers is estimated to be equivalent to one-fifth of combined emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production. Allen and Pavelsky used satellite imagery to estimate the surface area of rivers and streams (see the Perspective by Palmer and Ruhi). The stunning map that they generated results in an upward revision, by about one-third, to the total surface area of rivers and streams on Earth.

Science, this issue p. 585; see also p. 546

Abstract

The turbulent surfaces of rivers and streams are natural hotspots of biogeochemical exchange with the atmosphere. At the global scale, the total river-atmosphere flux of trace gasses such as carbon dioxide depends on the proportion of Earth’s surface that is covered by the fluvial network, yet the total surface area of rivers and streams is poorly constrained. We used a global database of planform river hydromorphology and a statistical approach to show that global river and stream surface area at mean annual discharge is 773,000 ± 79,000 square kilometers (0.58 ± 0.06%) of Earth’s nonglaciated land surface, an area 44 ± 15% larger than previous spatial estimates. We found that rivers and streams likely play a greater role in controlling land-atmosphere fluxes than is currently represented in global carbon budgets.

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