Watershed control on the carbon loading of marine sedimentary particles

Elana L. Leithold*, Neal E. Blair

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

76 Scopus citations


Previous investigations of the factors governing organic carbon burial on continental margins have pointed toward the important, apparently protective association of carbon with mineral particles. These studies have also revealed dramatic transformations of carbon-particle relationships at the land-sea interface. Riverine particles in some settings lose a large portion of their loads of sorbed terrestrial carbon upon discharge to the ocean and gradually reload to similar levels with marine carbon. The Eel River in northern California and the adjacent continental shelf were selected as an ideal system to investigate the rates of these processes. The river is episodically subject to large floods, and the shelf stratigraphy preserves a record of the resultant large pulses of sediment and carbon input to the marine environment. Carbon isotopic, carbon to nitrogen, and carbon to surface area ratios of particles in flood deposits were expected to reflect the rapid unloading of terrestrial carbon from discharged particles, whereas nonflood sediments that have accumulated at slower rates on the shelf were expected to carry higher loads of marine carbon. Our results indicate, however, that particles on the Eel shelf have retained their loads of terrigenous carbon, and that a significant portion of the particle-sorbed carbon buried on the shelf is kerogen derived from the Mesozoic-Tertiary Franciscan Complex. We hypothesize that rates of uplift and mass wasting in the Eel watershed and rates of particle delivery to and burial on the continental shelf, are so rapid that kerogen is not completely oxidized and is recycled instead. The loading of carbon on clay-sized particles delivered to the shelf, moreover, is dependent on river discharge and may reflect the relative importance of different mass wasting processes during precipitation events of varying intensity. The Eel River system is likely to be representative of other small, mountainous rivers and indicates that processes on land may play an important role in governing the amount and character of carbon being buried on the continental margins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2231-2240
Number of pages10
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number14
StatePublished - 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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