How temperature unveils the complexities of US rivers

Have you ever considered the factors that influence dissolved oxygen levels in rivers across the United States? Penn State found that temperature is the most important factor influencing oxygen levels in US rivers by using a deep learning model on data from several hundred water bodies.

Key parameters

Oxygen concentration is critical for the survival of aquatic organisms, varying significantly depending on the unique temperature, light, and flow of each river. Wei Zhi, Assistant Research Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study, explains, “Studies have shown that three major factors — flow, temperature, and sunlight — influence the amount of dissolved oxygen found in a river or stream. We wanted to know, at the U.S. continental scale, which of these competing drivers was dominant.”

All three factors are important, as indicated by Li Li, the corresponding author and the Barry and Shirley Isett Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Penn State. The speed of a river’s flow affects how fast oxygen in the air dissolves in water. The water’s temperature influences how much oxygen it can draw from the air, and the amount of sunlight that enters the water influences how much oxygen the plants in the water can produce on their own.

However, because monitoring data varies across rivers and times, it is difficult to determine which factor is the most important. Some rivers, for example, were measured only in the summers of the 1980s, while others were measured only in the spring of the 2000s.

Research revealed

To overcome this obstacle, the researchers analyzed 40 years of data from 580 rivers in the contiguous United States, each with its own specific temperature, flow, and lighting conditions. Researchers developed a deep learning model with long short-term memory to investigate the relationship between weather and dissolved oxygen.

The findings show that temperature, rather than light or stream flow, controls dissolved oxygen dynamics on a continental scale. Additionally, light was the second most important factor influencing dissolved oxygen levels, with stream flow having the least impact.

“Temperature is the predominant driver of daily dissolved oxygen dynamics in US rivers,” Zhi added. “Fairly accurate predictions of oxygen concentration can be made by temperature alone. Dissolved oxygen is declining in warming rivers, which has important implications for water security and ecosystem health in the future warming climate.”

The study found that temperature is the most important driver of dissolved oxygen dynamics in US rivers. As a result, monitoring river temperature changes can provide valuable information about how oxygen levels may be affected.

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