1. It is becoming increasingly clear that fresh waters play a major role in the global C cycle. Stream ecosystem respiration (ER) and gross primary productivity (GPP) exert a significant control on organic carbon fluxes in fluvial networks. However, little is known about how climate change will influence these fluxes.
2. Here, we used a ‘natural experiment’ to demonstrate the role of temperature and nutrient cycling in whole-system metabolism (ER, GPP and net ecosystem production – NEP), in naturally heated geothermal (5–25 °C) Icelandic streams.
3. We calculated ER and GPP with a new, more accurate method, which enabled us to take into account the additional uncertainties owing to stream spatial heterogeneity in oxygen concentrations within a reach. ER ranged 1–25 g C m−2 day−1 and GPP 1–10 g C m−2 day−1. The median uncertainties (based on 1 SD) in ER and GPP were 50% and 20%, respectively.
4. Despite extremely low water nutrient concentrations, high metabolic rates in the warm streams were supported by fast cycling rates of nutrients, as revealed from inorganic nutrient (N, P) addition experiments.
5. ER exceeded GPP in all streams (with average GPP/ER = 0.6) and was more strongly related to temperature than GPP, resulting in elevated negative NEP with warming. We show that, as a first approximation based on summer investigations, global stream carbon emission to the atmosphere would nearly double from 0.12 Pg C year−1 at 13 °C to 0.21 (0.15–0.33) Pg C year−1 with a 5 °C warming.
6. Compared to previous studies from natural systems (including terrestrial ecosystems), the temperature dependence of stream metabolism was not confounded by latitude or altitude, seasonality, light and nutrient availability, water chemistry, space availability (water transient storage), and water availability.
7. Consequently, stream nutrient processing is likely to increase with warming, protecting downstream ecosystems (rivers, estuaries, coastal marine systems) during the summer low flows from nutrient enrichment, but at the cost of increased CO2 flux back to the atmosphere.