The persistence of memory: The fate of ancient sedimentary organic carbon in a modern sedimentary system

Neal E. Blair, Elana L. Leithold, Shawn T. Ford, Kelly A. Peeler, Jennifer C. Holmes, David W. Perkey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

197 Scopus citations


The cycle of organic carbon burial and exhumation moderates atmospheric chemistry and global climate over geologic timescales. The burial of organic carbon occurs predominantly at sea in association with clay-sized particles derived from the erosion of uplifted continental rocks. It follows that the history of the fine-grained particles on land may bear on the nature of the organic carbon buried. In this study, the evolution of clay-associated organic matter was followed from bedrock source to the seabed in the Eel River sedimentary system of northern California using natural abundance 13C and 14C tracers. Approximately half of the fine-grained organic carbon delivered to the shelf is derived from ancient sedimentary organic carbon found in the uplifted Mesozoic-Tertiary Franciscan Complex of the watershed. The short residence time of friable soils on steep hill slopes, coupled with rapid sediment accumulation rates on the shelf-slope, act to preserve the ancient organic carbon. A comparable quantity of modern organic carbon is added to particles in the watershed and on the shelf and slope. The bimodal mixture of ancient and modern C in soils and sediments may be characteristic of many short, mountainous rivers. If the Eel River chemistry is typical of such rivers, more than 40 Tg of ancient organic C may be delivered to the world's oceans each year. A flux of that magnitude would have a significant influence on marine and global C-cycles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)63-73
Number of pages11
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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