Berkeley Lab

Hidden processes during seasonal isolation of a high-altitude watershed

Conceptual model of biogeochemical processes within the ER study site.

Our understanding of biogeochemical processes including surface-subsurface flux between the hyporheic zone and overlying water column is reduced where sample acquisition is difficult or impossible. Potentially deterministic changes to ecosystem function occur during such intervals, such as the onset of a seasonal change, over an extended quiescent period, or when extreme events (e.g., storms or rapid thaws) punctuate a temporal record. High-altitude locations, such as where headwater streams are often located, are archetypical in this regard as they may be difficult to reach under the best conditions and are nearly impossible to reach when events that are linked to seasonal inclemency restrict access or defy our ability to time data collection with episodic events. In these cases, our understanding of ecosystem function can come through approaches that employ continuous measurements.

This research defines how to address key data gaps in our current understanding of watershed biogeochemistry during seasonal inaccessibility. Continuous, autonomous sampling using the OsmoSampler produces reliable measurements of geochemistry and microbiology and may be applied in diverse environments to capture previously hidden biogeochemical processes where access is limited or impossible.


Biogeochemical processes capable of altering global carbon systems occur frequently in Earth’s Critical Zone–the area spanning from vegetation canopy to saturated bedrock– yet many of these phenomena are difficult to detect. Observation of these processes is limited by the seasonal inaccessibility of remote ecosystems, such as those in mountainous, snow- and ice-dominated areas. This isolation leads to a distinct gap in biogeochemical knowledge that ultimately affects the accuracy and confidence with which these ecosystems can be computationally modeled for the purpose of projecting change under different climate scenarios. To examine a high-altitude, headwater ecosystem’s role in methanogenesis, sulfate reduction, and groundwater- surface water exchange, water samples were continuously collected from the river and hyporheic zones (HZ) during winter isolation in the East River (ER), CO watershed. Measurements of continuously collected ER surface water revealed up to 50 μM levels of dissolved methane in July through September, while samples from 12 cm deep in the hyporheic zone at the same location showed a spring to early summer peak in methane with a strong biogenic signature (<65 μM, δ13C-CH4, −60.76‰) before declining. Continuously collected δ18O-H2O and δ2H-H2O isotopes from the water column exhibited similar patterns to discrete measurements, while samples 12 cm deep in the hyporheic zone experienced distinct fluctuations in δ18O-H2O, alluding to significant groundwater interactions. Continuously collected microbial communities in the river in the late fall and early winter revealed diverse populations that reflect the taxonomic composition of ecologically similar river systems, including taxa indicative of methane cycling in this system. These measurements captured several biogeochemical components of the high-altitude watershed in response to seasonality, strengthening our understanding of these systems during the winter months.


Buser-Young, J. Z., Lapham, L. L., Thurber, A. R., Williams, K. H. & Colwell, F. S. Hidden Processes During Seasonal Isolation of a High-Altitude Watershed. Front. Earth Sci. 9, (2021).