Resistance and resilience of ecosystem metabolism in a flood-prone river system


Urs Uehlinger, Department of Limnology, Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (EAWAG), CH-8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland. E-mail:


1. Gross primary production (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER) were analysed for 18 months in two reaches of the River Thur, a prealpine river in Switzerland. The upper reach at 655 m above sea level (a.s.l.) is bedrock constrained, has a high slope (0.60%) and a catchment area of 126 km2. The lower reach at 370 m a.s.l. has a more extensive hyporheic zone, a lower slope (0.17%) and a catchment of 1696 km2.
2. In both reaches, temporal patterns of stream metabolism reflected the occurrence of bed-moving spates. Average reductions of GPP and ER by spates were 53 and 24% in the upper reach, and 37 and 14% in the lower reach, respectively. The greater resistance of ER than GPP in both reaches shifted the ecosystem metabolism towards heterotrophy (decrease of the ratio of GPP to ER (P/R)) following spates.
3. Recovery of GPP was significantly faster in the lower reach and exhibited distinct seasonal variation (positive correlation with incident light). The differences in stability (both resistance and resilience) between reaches reflected differences in geomorphic settings and disturbance regime.
4. Stepwise regression analysis was used to explore the potential influence of season, disturbance and prevailing environmental conditions on stream metabolism in each reach. Time since spate plus temperature explained 73 and 86% of variation in ER and GPP, respectively, in the upper reach and 55% of variation in ER in the lower reach. Season plus prevailing environmental conditions explained 67% of variation in GPP in the lower reach.
5. To test how the perception of stability may change with increasing scale of observation, the disturbance regimes of 12 sites were compared with the disturbance regime of the entire Thur catchment. The analysis suggests that stream metabolism at the catchment scale is far more resistant to high flow events than at the reach scale.