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Abstract

Wildfires and incomplete combustion of fossil fuel produce large amounts of black carbon. Black carbon production and transport are essential components of the carbon cycle. Constraining estimates of black carbon exported from land to ocean is critical, given ongoing changes in land use and climate, which affect fire occurrence and black carbon dynamics. Here, we present an inventory of the concentration and radiocarbon content (∆14C) of particulate black carbon for 18 rivers around the globe. We find that particulate black carbon accounts for about 15.8 ± 0.9% of river particulate organic carbon, and that fluxes of particulate black carbon co-vary with river-suspended sediment, indicating that particulate black carbon export is primarily controlled by erosion. River particulate black carbon is not exclusively from modern sources but is also aged in intermediate terrestrial carbon pools in several high-latitude rivers, with ages of up to 17,000 14C years. The flux-weighted 14C average age of particulate black carbon exported to oceans is 3,700 ± 400 14C years. We estimate that the annual global flux of particulate black carbon to the ocean is 0.017 to 0.037 Pg, accounting for 4 to 32% of the annually produced black carbon. When buried in marine sediments, particulate black carbon is sequestered to form a long-term sink for CO2.

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Change history

  • 17 July 2018

    In the HTML version of this Article originally published, Fig. 2 was incorrectly black and white; it has now been replaced with the colour version. The PDF was unaffected.

  • 09 October 2018

    In the version of this Article originally published, the units of the x and y axes in Fig. 3a were incorrectly given as ‘mg km–2 yr–1’; the correct units are ‘Mg km–2 yr–1’. These errors have now been corrected in the online versions.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank M. Hilf for his technical support and laboratory assistance. We also are grateful for the support of D. Montlucon for collecting Mississippi River samples and locating archives, N. Drenzek for collection of the Eel River samples, A. Lima, J. King and C. Reddy for collection of Pettaquamscutt River samples, and members of the Woods Hole Research Center for collection of Colville and Yukon River samples. We thank D. Vance, B. Revels, and F. Siringan for providing the logistical foundation for collecting Amazon River and Cagayan samples, D. Brandova for her technical assistance, and the ETH Ion Beam Physics Lab AMS Lab colleagues for AMS support. We thank N. Baltensweiler (University of Zurich, Information Technology MELS/SIVIC) and G. J. Fiske (Woods Hole Research Center) for help with Figs 1 and 3, respectively. We thank I. Medhaug for comments on the manuscript. A.C. acknowledges financial support from the University of Zurich Forschungskredit Fellowship and the University of Zurich (grant No. STWF-18-026). M.R., S.A. and M.S. acknowledge support from the University Research Priority Projection Global Change and Biodiversity (URPP-GCB). M.Z. acknowledges support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 41521064). T.E. acknowledges support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (“CAPS-LOCK” and “CAPS-LOCK2” #200021_140850). V.G. acknowledges financial support from an Independent Study Award from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zürich, Switzerland

    • Alysha I. Coppola
    • , Daniel B. Wiedemeier
    • , Ulrich M. Hanke
    • , Moritz Reisser
    • , Samuel Abiven
    •  & Michael W. I. Schmidt
  2. Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

    • Valier Galy
    • , Ulrich M. Hanke
    • , Britta Voss
    • , Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink
    •  & Timothy I. Eglinton
  3. Geological Institute, Department of Earth Sciences, ETH Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

    • Negar Haghipour
    • , Gabriela S. Nascimento
    • , Muhammed Usman
    • , Thomas M. Blattmann
    • , Chantal V. Freymond
    •  & Timothy I. Eglinton
  4. Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics, ETH Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

    • Negar Haghipour
    •  & Lukas Wacker
  5. Key Laboratory of Marine Chemistry Theory and Technology of the Ministry of Education, Ocean University of China, Qingdao, China

    • Meixun Zhao
  6. Laboratory for Marine Ecology and Environmental Science, Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology, Qingdao, China

    • Meixun Zhao
  7. MARUM-Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany

    • Enno Schefuß

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Contributions

D.W., T.E., M.S. and A.C. contributed to the design of the study. T.E., G.N, M.U., T.B., C.F., E.S., M.Z., B.V., V.G., M.R. and B.P.E. provided river samples. A.C. and D.W. conducted the black carbon laboratory analyses. N.H., A.C., U.H. and L.W. provided analytical assistance and quality control to the radiocarbon measurements. V.G., A.C., S.A, M.S., E.S. and T.E. contributed to data analysis and interpretation. A.C. authored the manuscript and constructed the figures. All authors contributed comments and input on this manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alysha I. Coppola.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0159-8

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