Human and natural impacts on the U.S. freshwater salinization and alkalinization: A machine learning approach

Beibei E, Shuang Zhang, Charles T. Driscoll, Tao Wen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Ongoing salinization and alkalinization in U.S. rivers have been attributed to inputs of road salt and effects of human-accelerated weathering in previous studies. Salinization poses a severe threat to human and ecosystem health, while human derived alkalinization implies increasing uncertainty in the dynamics of terrestrial sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. A mechanistic understanding of whether and how human activities accelerate weathering and contribute to the geochemical changes in U.S. rivers is lacking. To address this uncertainty, we compiled dissolved sodium (salinity proxy) and alkalinity values along with 32 watershed properties ranging from hydrology, climate, geomorphology, geology, soil chemistry, land use, and land cover for 226 river monitoring sites across the coterminous U.S. Using these data, we built two machine-learning models to predict monthly-aggregated sodium and alkalinity fluxes at these sites. The sodium-prediction model detected human activities (represented by population density and impervious surface area) as major contributors to the salinity of U.S. rivers. In contrast, the alkalinity-prediction model identified natural processes as predominantly contributing to variation in riverine alkalinity flux, including runoff, carbonate sediment or siliciclastic sediment, soil pH and soil moisture. Unlike prior studies, our analysis suggests that the alkalinization in U.S. rivers is largely governed by local climatic and hydrogeological conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number164138
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Sep 1 2023


  • Alkalinization
  • Machine learning
  • Rivers
  • Road salt
  • Salinization
  • Weathering

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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