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Reburial of fossil organic carbon in marine sediments


Marine sediments act as the ultimate sink for organic carbon, sequestering otherwise rapidly cycling carbon for geologic timescales1,2. Sedimentary organic carbon burial appears to be controlled by oxygen exposure time in situ3,4, and much research has focused on understanding the mechanisms of preservation of organic carbon5. In this context, combustion-derived black carbon has received attention as a form of refractory organic carbon that may be preferentially preserved in soils6,7 and sediments8,9. However, little is understood about the environmental roles, transport and distribution of black carbon. Here we apply isotopic analyses to graphitic black carbon samples isolated from pre-industrial marine and terrestrial sediments. We find that this material is terrestrially derived and almost entirely depleted of radiocarbon, suggesting that it is graphite weathered from rocks, rather than a combustion product. The widespread presence of fossil graphitic black carbon in sediments has therefore probably led to significant overestimates of burial of combustion-derived black carbon in marine sediments. It could be responsible for biasing radiocarbon dating of sedimentary organic carbon, and also reveals a closed loop in the carbon cycle. Depending on its susceptibility to oxidation, this recycled carbon may be locked away from the biologically mediated carbon cycle for many geologic cycles.

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We thank the scientific staff at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry for assistance with radiocarbon analyses, C. Preston and C. Swanston for radiocarbon analysis of the Stillaguamish River sample, S. Petsch and R. Smernik for providing kerogen samples for analysis, and P. Quay and E. Druffel for editing and comments. This work was supported by a mini-grant from LLNL CAMS and by grants from the NSF; A.F.D. thanks the NSF for a graduate research fellowship; Y.G. thanks the Canadian NSERC and Quebec NATEQ for support for this work.

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Correspondence to Angela F. Dickens.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Table 1: Kerogen sample information and graphitic black carbon (GBC) yield. (DOC 20 kb)

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Figure 1: Concentrations and fluxes of GBC off the Washington coast.
Figure 2: Plot of Δ versus δ13C for all TOC (open symbols) and GBC (closed symbols) samples.


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