Sedimentation and carbon burial on the northern California continental shelf: The signatures of land-use change

Elana L. Leithold, David W. Perkey, Neal E. Blair, Todd N. Creamer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


The burial of organic carbon (OC) on continental margins is strongly coupled to the supply and accumulation of inorganic mineral particles. It follows that carbon burial on the margins should be impacted by changes in riverine sediment delivery, yet these impacts have not been well documented. In this study, an ∼2000-year record of sedimentation and carbon burial on the continental shelf offshore from the Eel River in northern California was examined. The record reveals a 6-11-fold increase in the rate of sediment accumulation on the mid-shelf beginning about 1955, and a concomitant decrease in grain size and increase in flood-layer preservation. At the same time, the age of buried wood fragments abruptly decreased and their stable carbon isotopic composition became enriched in 13C. We argue that these changes can be explained largely as the result of altered land use in the Eel watershed during the past century and its impacts on shelf sediment dispersal processes. Sedimentary OC on the Eel shelf consists primarily of discrete wood fragments associated with coarse-silt- and sand-sized particles, and of organic matter strongly bound to clay-sized mineral grains. The clay fraction is a particularly sensitive recorder of environmental change in the Eel system. Above the 1955 horizon, the clay fraction shows an abrupt decrease in OC concentration and loading (OC content normalized to particle surface area) attendant with the increased accumulation rate. Kerogen carbon constitutes a relatively constant proportion of the clay-associated OC throughout the ∼2000-year record. Increases in mass wasting and input of bedrock material following the onset of intensive industrial logging in the Eel watershed may have resulted in a lower loading of terrestrial plant OC in the clay fraction deposited after 1955 as suggested by isotopic mass balance calculations. The Eel River is representative of small mountainous watersheds worldwide that deliver a major portion of the sediment and carbon flux to the margins and that have been strongly impacted by land-use change during the past century. Our results suggest that such changes leave a distinctive mark in both the sedimentological and geochemical records preserved offshore.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)349-371
Number of pages23
JournalContinental Shelf Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2005


  • Carbon isotopes
  • Eel River
  • Land use
  • Organic carbon
  • Shelf sedimentation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science
  • Geology

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Sedimentation and carbon burial on the northern California continental shelf: The signatures of land-use change'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this