Letter | Published:

High rates of organic carbon burial in fjord sediments globally

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 450453 (2015) | Download Citation

This article has been updated

Abstract

The deposition and long-term burial of organic carbon in marine sediments has played a key role in controlling atmospheric O2 and CO2 concentrations over the past 500 million years1. Marine carbon burial represents the dominant natural mechanism of long-term organic carbon sequestration1,2. Fjords—deep, glacially carved estuaries at high latitudes—have been hypothesized to be hotspots of organic carbon burial, because they receive high rates of organic material fluxes from the watershed3. Here we compile organic carbon concentrations from 573 fjord surface sediment samples and 124 sediment cores from nearly all fjord systems globally. We use sediment organic carbon content and sediment delivery rates to calculate rates of organic carbon burial in fjord systems across the globe. We estimate that about 18 Mt of organic carbon are buried in fjord sediments each year, equivalent to 11% of annual marine carbon burial globally4. Per unit area, fjord organic carbon burial rates are one hundred times as large as the global ocean average, and fjord sediments contain twice as much organic carbon as biogenous sediments underlying the upwelling regions of the ocean1. We conclude that fjords may play an important role in climate regulation on glacial–interglacial timescales.

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Change history

  • 22 May 2015

    In the version of this Letter originally published, the stated rates of organic carbon burial for fjords were incorrect in the penultimate sentence of the abstract, it should have read: 'Per unit area, fjord organic carbon burial rates are one hundred times as large as the global ocean average, and fjord sediments contain twice as much organic carbon as biogenous sediments underlying the upwelling regions of the ocean1.' This error has been corrected in all versions of the Letter.

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Acknowledgements

We thank P. Louchouarn, P. Santschi, F. Marcantonio and S. Woodard for their reviews of the original manuscript. We also thank the University of Otago for a grant to C. Savage that funded the research cruise, and the crew of the RV Polaris II for sampling assistance. V.G. was supported by the US National Science Foundation (Grant OCE-0928582). Finally, we thank University of Otago scientists C. D. Rundgren, for field assistance and identification of vegetation samples, and S. E. Schuller, for field assistance and providing Supplementary Fig. 1.

Author information

Author notes

    • Mead Allison

    Present addresses: The Water Institute of the Gulf, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70825, USA; Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118, USA.

Affiliations

  1. Global Aquatic Research (GAR) LLC, Sodus, New York 14551, USA

    • Richard W. Smith
  2. Department of Marine Sciences, University of Connecticut, Groton, Connecticut 06340, USA

    • Richard W. Smith
  3. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Thomas S. Bianchi
  4. University of Texas, Department of Geological Sciences, Austin, Texas 78758, USA

    • Mead Allison
  5. University of Otago, Department of Marine Science, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand

    • Candida Savage
  6. University of Cape Town, Department of Biological Sciences, Cape Town 7700, South Africa

    • Candida Savage
  7. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Valier Galy

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Contributions

R.W.S.—Sample collection, data analysis and interpretation, developed the global fjord and oceanic C burial models. T.S.B. —Authored funding proposal, project planning, sample collection, data analysis and interpretation. M.A.—Developed the core age model, performed radioisotope dating, calculated linear sedimentation rates via 210Pb analyses. Data interpretation. C.S.—Provided funds for shiptime aboard the RV Polaris II, and coordinated the research, site selection and sampling during the 2007 and 2010 cruises. Authored the proposal for the project. Data interpretation. V.G.—Provided AMS analyses and fossil organic carbon yield quantification techniques. Data interpretation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard W. Smith.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2421

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