Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy
Environmental Significace of the Groundwater-Surface Water Interaction Zone




The Worldwide Hydrobiogeochemistry Observation Network for Dynamic River Systems (WHONDRS) is a consortium of researchers and other interested parties that aims to understand coupled hydrologic, biogeochemical, and microbial function within river corridors experiencing recurring, episodic, or chronic hydrologic perturbations. WHONDRS aims to galvanize a global community around understanding these coupled systems from local to global scales and ultimately provide the scientific basis for improved management of dynamic river corridors throughout the world.

Benefits of Joining WHONDRS

The success of WHONDRS hinges on broad involvement, and we invite interested parties to contact us to evaluate potential collaboration. WHONDRS partners will have the opportunity to do the following:

  • Join a global effort to understand how major ecosystem drivers (e.g, dams, floods, droughts) influence the holistic functioning of dynamic river corridor ecosystems.
  • Access WHONDRS-developed infrastructure and methods such as a streamlined sensor package; sample collection, sample analysis, and quality assurance protocols; modeling approaches; and data management/storage that can be applied to any field system that is part of the network.
  • Generate hydrobiogeochemical data in river corridor systems that are relevant to local science issues and the research programs of individual investigators, while also contributing to global understanding.
  • Share locally collected data and insights with the global community, whereby all data will be georeferenced, publicly available, consistently structured, and easily discoverable.

WHONDRS Motivation

Impact of high-frequency stage fluctuations on hydrology, biogeochemistry, and microbiology, which are the foci of WHONDRS. Insets show a cross section of the subsurface below a river (i.e., the hyporheic zone) associated with different river stages, where green and blue water represent groundwater and river water, respectively. When the river is low (left inset) groundwater brings microbes (brown cells) into the hyporheic zone, which may alter biogeochemical function. Low river levels also cause the water in pores to drain, which can spatially isolate organic carbon (green clumps) from microbial cells. Enzymes (black and red) excreted into the environment by microbial cells continue to degrade particulate carbon into molecules that can be consumed by microbes, yet accumulate due to being isolated from microbial cells. A rise in river level (right inset) causes groundwater-surface mixing, releases organic carbon, changes the types of microbes found in the hyporheic zone, and can stimulate biogeochemical function. These hydrobiogeochemical dynamics are ultimately driven by high-frequency stage fluctuations, and were inferred at the original WHONDRS field site along the Columbia River. One key question is how these dynamics play out in different parts of the world across river corridors that experience high-frequency stage fluctuations, but that demonstrate different sediment characteristics and different biogeochemical and microbial features. (Note: inset panels derived from Stegen et al. 2016, doi: 10.1038/ncomms11237)

WHONDRS is inspired by the recognition that events and processes occurring throughout watershed systems strongly influence human society and environmental health. As a collective system, watersheds provide numerous ecosystem services such as clean water, protection from floods, and essential habitat for animals and plants. Many of these ecosystem services are provided within the context of river corridors, which integrate outcomes of upstream events (e.g., contaminant spills, fires) and processes (e.g., contaminant transformation, sediment entrainment). WHONDRS is dedicated to accelerating the development of knowledge and models that are transferable across river corridor systems, and using that knowledge to enhance predictions of the hydrobiogeochemical function of watersheds (e.g., fluxes of water, contaminants, carbon, nutrients).

Perturbations to watersheds (e.g., dam operations, floods, droughts, contaminant releases, fire) and their associated river corridors are increasingly common and often multiple perturbations compound the effects of each other. There is a significant need to enhance our ability to predict the outcomes of these perturbations, with respect to how they impact the ability of watersheds to provide services to society and maintain healthy environments.

Many existing investments and approaches to understanding river corridors (and watersheds) are founded upon 'place-based' science that emphasizes heavy investment in a relatively small number of constrained field systems. This approach is powerful and necessary. To effectively transfer knowledge and models across systems, however, place-based science must be complemented with knowledge from a much broader suite of river corridor systems. Cross-system knowledge is required for the identification of fundamental processes and rules that span systems, as well as having data needed to evaluate/inform models used across systems.

WHONDRS was developed to meet the need for (1) enhanced predictive capacity of dynamic/perturbed systems enabled by model-relevant knowledge and (2) data generated from and transferable across a broad spectrum of river corridor systems. To this end, WHONDRS pursues measurements that directly inform dynamic models that couple hydrology (e.g., exchanges of water between streams/rivers and their underlying sediments) with biogeochemistry (e.g., microbially-driven transformations of organic matter and contaminants). In so doing, WHONDRS enables knowledge and models that link physical, chemical, and biological processes to provide integrated understanding of system function. WHONDRS takes an integrative approach because ecosystem services provided by river corridors are the result of interactions among multiple types of processes. WHONDRS data and the models with which they integrate focus on the entirety of the system, as opposed to focusing just on hydrology or biogeochemistry. WHONDRS does so in a consistent manner across river corridors, with an emphasis on systems that experience significant externally-forced dynamic perturbations. Data, knowledge, and models resulting from WHONDRS efforts fill key gaps that currently limit our ability to predict impacts of perturbations on the ecosystem services provided by river corridors and watersheds.

Science Drivers

While the primary scientific focus of WHONDRS examines the impacts of high-frequency stage fluctuations on hyporheic zone hydrobiogeochemistry, this is not the exclusive focus. WHONDRS is also interested in impacts to thermal regimes, nutrient export, primary producers, and physical dynamics of river corridor ecosystems.

WHONDRS investigates impacts of sustained high-frequency stage fluctuations at local to global scales

  • The magnitude of hydrologic exchange between surface water and the hyporheic zone
  • River water and hyporheic zone thermal dynamics
  • Organic carbon character in river water and the hyporheic zone
  • Microbiology of the hyporheic zone
  • Biogeochemical reaction potential of the hyporheic zone
  • Riparian vegetation and periphyton distributions
  • Total nutrient export from rivers to coastal environments
  • Sediment transport, accumulation, and scouring dynamics

WHONDRS is taking a staged approach to addressing these issues, with an initial focus on hydrologic exchange, thermal dynamics, and organic carbon character.

By addressing these scientific drivers, WHONDRS will fill important knowledge gaps linking high-frequency stage fluctuations to river corridor ecosystem function and health. WHONDRS aims to galvanize a global community around understanding these impacts and ultimately provide the scientific basis for improved management of dynamic river corridors throughout the world.