Old Carbon on the Move

our paper is out in Nature Geoscience!!

Increased mobilization of aged carbon to rivers by human disturbance



Approximately 8% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are estimated to come from land-use change1, but this estimate excludes fluxes of terrestrial carbon to aquatic ecosystems from human disturbance. Carbon fluxes from land to rivers have probably increased by 0.1 to 0.2 petagrams of carbon per year as a result of disturbances such as deforestation, agricultural intensification and the injection of human wastewater2. Most dissolved organic carbon in rivers originates from young organic carbon from soils and vegetation3, but aged carbon removed from the modern carbon cycle is also exported in many systems. Here we analyse a global data set of radiocarbon ages of riverine dissolved organic carbon and spatial data on land cover, population and environmental variables. We find that the age of dissolved organic carbon in rivers increases with population density and the proportion of human-dominated landscapes within a watershed, and decreases with annual precipitation. We reason that disturbance reintroduces aged soil organic matter into the modern carbon cycle, although fossil carbon in fertilizer or petroleum products may also be a source of aged carbon in disturbed watersheds. The total export from the terrestrial environment to freshwater systems remains unknown; nevertheless, our results suggest that 3–9% of dissolved organic carbon in rivers is aged carbon mobilized by human disturbance.

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