1. Primary production and respiration in streams, collectively referred to as stream ecosystem metabolism, are fundamental processes that determine trophic structure, biomass and nutrient cycling. Few studies have used high-frequency measurements of gross primary production (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER) over extended periods to characterise the factors that control stream ecosystem metabolism at hourly, daily, seasonal and annual scales.
2. We measured ecosystem metabolism at 5-min intervals for 23 months in Shepherd Creek, a small suburban stream in Cincinnati, Ohio (U.S.A.).
3. Daily GPP was best predicted by a model containing light and its synergistic interaction with water temperature. Water temperature alone was not significantly related to daily GPP, rather high temperatures enhanced the capacity of autotrophs to use available light.
4. The relationship between GPP and light was further explored using photosynthesis–irradiance curves (P–I curves). Light saturation of GPP was evident throughout the winter and spring and the P–I curve frequently exhibited strong counterclockwise hysteresis. Hysteresis occurred when water temperatures were greater in the afternoon than in the morning, although light was similar, further suggesting that light availability interacts synergistically with water temperature.
5. Storm flows strongly depressed GPP in the spring while desiccation arrested aquatic GPP and ER in late summer and autumn.
6. Ecosystem respiration was best predicted by GPP, water temperature and the rate of water exchange between the surface channel and transient storage zones. We estimate that c. 70% of newly fixed carbon was immediately respired by autotrophs and closely associated heterotrophs.
7. Interannual, seasonal, daily and hourly variability in ecosystem metabolism was attributable to a combination of light availability, water temperature, storm flow dynamics and desiccation. Human activities affect all these factors in urban and suburban streams, suggesting stream ecosystem processes are likely to respond in complex ways to changing land use and climate.