Protracted storage of biospheric carbon in the Ganges–Brahmaputra basin

  • Nature Geoscience volume 4, pages 843847 (2011)
  • doi:10.1038/ngeo1293
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The amount of carbon stored in continental reservoirs such as soils, sediments and the biosphere greatly exceeds the amount of carbon in the atmosphere1. As such, small variations in the residence time of organic carbon in these reservoirs can produce large variations in the atmospheric inventory of carbon dioxide. One such reservoir is the Ganges–Brahmaputra system draining the Himalayas, which represents one of the largest sources of terrestrial biospheric carbon to the ocean2. Here, we examine the radiocarbon content of river sediments collected from the Ganges–Brahmaputra drainage basin to determine the residence time of organic carbon in this reservoir. We show that the average age of biospheric organic carbon in the drainage basin ranges from 0.5 to 17 thousand years. The radiocarbon age of plant-derived fatty acids—a proxy for labile terrestrial vegetation—ranges from just 0.05 to 1.3 thousand years. We propose that the bulk ages can be explained by the existence of a refractory, slowly cycling component of the organic carbon pool that is mixed with a younger labile pool. We estimate that this refractory component has an average age of over 15,000 years, and represents up to 20% of total biospheric carbon exported by the Ganges–Brahmaputra system. We suggest that global warming might destabilize this ancient pool of carbon, if warming stimulates microbial decomposition of organic carbon reserves.

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We thank M. Rahman (Dhaka University) and A. Gajurel (Tribhuvan University) for their assistance during fieldwork in Bangladesh and Nepal. We thank D. Montluçon for technical support. We thank S. Jenouvrier for assistance with statistical analysis of the data. We thank C. France-Lanord for his support and insightful comments. This study was supported by the US National Science Foundation (Grants OCE-0851015 and OCE-0928582).

Author information


  1. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, 360 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Valier Galy
    •  & Timothy Eglinton
  2. Geological Institute, Department of Earth Sciences, Sonneggstrasse 5, ETH, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Timothy Eglinton


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V.G. and T.E. designed the study and wrote the manuscript. V.G. performed bulk organic C and compound specific measurements. V.G. performed the sampling.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Valier Galy.

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