Model predictions of long-lived storage of organic carbon in river deposits
The mass of carbon stored as organic matter in terrestrial systems is sufficiently large to play an important role in the global biogeochemical cycling of CO
2 and O
2. Field measurements of radiocarbon-depleted particulate organic carbon (POC) in rivers suggest that terrestrial organic matter persists in surface environments over millennial (or greater) timescales, but the exact mechanisms behind these long storage times remain poorly understood. To address this knowledge gap, we developed a numerical model for the radiocarbon content of riverine POC that accounts for both the duration of sediment storage in river deposits and the effects of POC cycling. We specifically target rivers because sediment transport influences the maximum amount of time organic matter can persist in the terrestrial realm and river catchment areas are large relative to the spatial scale of variability in biogeochemical processes.
Our results show that rivers preferentially erode young deposits, which, at steady state, requires that the oldest river deposits are stored for longer than expected for a well-mixed sedimentary reservoir. This geometric relationship can be described by an exponentially tempered power-law distribution of sediment storage durations, which allows for significant aging of biospheric POC. While OC cycling partially limits the effects of sediment storage, the consistency between our model predictions and a compilation of field data highlights the important role of storage in setting the radiocarbon content of riverine POC. The results of this study imply that the controls on the terrestrial OC cycle are not limited to the factors that affect rates of primary productivity and respiration but also include the dynamics of terrestrial sedimentary systems.