Runoff-driven export of particulate organic carbon from soil in temperate forested uplands

Smith Joanne C. 1, Galy Albert 1, Hovius Niels 1, Tye Andrew M. 2, Turowski Jens M. 3, Schleppi Patrick 3

1 Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK
2 Landscape and Climate Processes, British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG, UK
3 Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, CH-8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland

Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 365 (2013): 198-208

DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2013.01.027


We characterise the sources, pathways and export fluxes of particulate organic carbon (POC) in a headwater catchment in the Swiss Alps, where suspended sediment has a mean organic carbon concentration of 1.45% ± 0.06. By chemically fingerprinting this carbon and its potential sources using carbon and nitrogen elemental and isotopic compositions, we show that it derives from binary mixing between bedrock and modern biomass with a soil-like composition. The hillslope and channel are strongly coupled, allowing runoff to deliver recent organic carbon directly to the stream beyond a moderate discharge threshold. At higher flows, more biomass is mobilised and the fraction of modern carbon in the suspended load reaches 0.70, increased from 0.30 during background conditions. Significant amounts of non-fossil organic carbon are thus transferred from the hillslope without the need for extreme events such as landsliding. Precipitation is key: as soon as the rain stops, biomass supply ceases and fossil carbon again dominates. We use rating curves modelled using samples from five storm events integrated over 29-year discharge records to calculate long-term export fluxes of total POC and non-fossil POC from the catchment of 23.3 ± 5.8 and 14.0 ± 4.4 t km-2 yr-1 respectively. These yields are comparable to those from active mountain belts, yet the processes responsible are much more widely applicable. Such settings have the potential to play a significant role in the global drawdown of carbon dioxide via riverine biomass erosion, and their contribution to the global flux of POC to the ocean may be more important than previously thought.

Keywords: organic carbon, isotope geochemistry, carbon export, mountain rivers, runoff processes