Articles | Volume 12, issue 24
Research article
21 Dec 2015
Research article |  | 21 Dec 2015

Seasonal dynamics of carbon and nutrients from two contrasting tropical floodplain systems in the Zambezi River basin

A. L. Zuijdgeest, R. Zurbrügg, N. Blank, R. Fulcri, D. B. Senn, and B. Wehrli

Abstract. Floodplains are important biogeochemical reactors during fluvial transport of carbon and nutrient species towards the oceans. In the tropics and subtropics, pronounced rainfall seasonality results in highly dynamic floodplain biogeochemistry. The massive construction of dams, however, has significantly altered the hydrography and chemical characteristics of many (sub)tropical rivers. In this study, we compare organic-matter and nutrient biogeochemistry of two large, contrasting floodplains in the Zambezi River basin in southern Africa: the Barotse Plains and the Kafue Flats. Both systems are of comparable size but differ in anthropogenic influence: while the Barotse Plains are still in large parts pristine, the Kafue Flats are bordered by two hydropower dams.

The two systems exhibit different flooding dynamics, with a larger contribution of floodplain-derived water in the Kafue Flats and a stronger peak flow in the Barotse Plains. Distinct seasonal differences have been observed in carbon and nutrient concentrations, loads, and export and retention behavior in both systems. The simultaneous retention of particulate carbon and nitrogen and the net export of dissolved organic and inorganic carbon and nitrogen suggested that degradation of particulate organic matter was the dominant process influencing the river biogeochemistry during the wet season in the Barotse Plains and during the dry season in the Kafue Flats. Reverse trends during the dry season indicated that primary production was important in the Barotse Plains, whereas the Kafue Flats seemed to have both primary production and respiration occurring during the wet season, potentially occurring spatially separated in the main channel and on the floodplain.

Carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of particulate organic matter showed that soil-derived material was dominant year-round in the Barotse Plains, whereas the Kafue Flats transported particulate organic matter that had been produced in the upstream reservoir during the wet season. Stable carbon isotopes suggested that inputs from the inundated floodplain to the particulate organic-matter pool were important during the wet season, whereas permanent vegetation contributed to the material transported during the dry season. This study revealed effects of dam construction on organic-matter and nutrient dynamics on the downstream floodplain that only become visible after longer periods, and it highlights how floodplains act as large biogeochemical reactors that can behave distinctly differently from the entire catchment.

Short summary
Two large floodplains hold the peak flows in the Zambezi River system – the dam-impacted Kafue Flats and the largely pristine Barotse Plains. Here we show that the inputs of organic matter and nutrients from such floodplains to the river are strongly affected by the presence of hydropower dams and highlight how floodplains act as large biogeochemical reactors that can behave distinctly differently from the entire catchment.
Final-revised paper