Pulsed carbon export from mountains by earthquake-triggered landslides explored in a reduced-complexity model

Croissant, Thomas; Hilton, Robert G.; Li, Gen K.; Howarth, Jamie; Wang, Jin; Harvey, Erin L.; Steer, Philippe; Densmore, Alexander L.

In mountain ranges, earthquakes can trigger widespread landsliding and mobilize large amounts of organic carbon by eroding soil and vegetation from hillslopes. Following a major earthquake, the landslide-mobilized organic carbon can be exported from river catchments by physical sediment transport processes or stored within the landscape where it may be degraded by heterotrophic respiration. The competition between these physical and biogeochemical processes governs a net transfer of carbon between the atmosphere and sedimentary organic matter, yet their relative importance following a large landslide-triggering earthquake remains poorly constrained. Here, we propose a model framework to quantify the post-seismic redistribution of soil-derived organic carbon. The approach combines predictions based on empirical observations of co-seismic sediment mobilization with a description of the physical and biogeochemical processes involved after an earthquake. Earthquake-triggered landslide populations are generated by randomly sampling a landslide area distribution, a proportion of which is initially connected to the fluvial network. Initially disconnected landslide deposits are transported downslope and connected to rivers at a constant velocity in the post-seismic period. Disconnected landslide deposits lose organic carbon by heterotrophic oxidation, while connected deposits lose organic carbon synchronously by both oxidation and river export. The modeling approach is numerically efficient and allows us to explore a large range of parameter values that exert a control on the fate of organic carbon in the upland erosional system. We explore the role of the climatic context (in terms of mean annual runoff and runoff variability) and rates of organic matter degradation using single pool and multi-pool models. Our results highlight the fact that the redistribution of organic carbon is strongly controlled by the annual runoff and the extent of landslide connection, but less so by the choice of organic matter degradation model. In the context of mountain ranges typical of the southwestern Pacific region, we find that model configurations allow more than 90 % of the landslide-mobilized carbon to be exported from mountain catchments. A simulation of earthquake cycles suggests efficient transfer of organic carbon out of a mountain range during the first decade of the post-seismic period. Pulsed erosion of organic matter by earthquake-triggered landslides is therefore an effective process to promote carbon sequestration in sedimentary deposits over thousands of years.

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Croissant, Thomas / Hilton, Robert G. / Li, Gen K. / et al: Pulsed carbon export from mountains by earthquake-triggered landslides explored in a reduced-complexity model. 2021. Copernicus Publications.

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