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Carbon export from mountain forests enhanced by earthquake-triggered landslides over millennia


Rapid ground accelerations during earthquakes can trigger landslides that disturb mountain forests and harvest carbon from soils and vegetation. Although infrequent over human timescales, these co-seismic landslides can set the rates of geomorphic processes over centuries to millennia. However, the long-term impacts of earthquakes and landslides on carbon export from the biosphere remain poorly constrained. Here, we examine the sedimentary fill of Lake Paringa, New Zealand, which is fed by a river draining steep mountains proximal to the Alpine Fault. Carbon isotopes reveal enhanced accumulation rates of biospheric carbon after four large earthquakes over the past ~1,100 years, probably reflecting delivery of soil-derived carbon eroded by deep-seated landslides. Cumulatively these pulses of earthquake-mobilized carbon represent 23 ± 5% of the record length, but account for 43 ± 5% of the biospheric carbon in the core. Landslide simulations suggest that 14 ± 5 million tonnes of carbon (MtC) could be eroded in each earthquake. Our findings support a link between active tectonics and the surface carbon cycle and suggest that large earthquakes can significantly contribute to carbon export from mountain forests over millennia.

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N.V.F. completed the research as part of the MSci programme in Geography at Durham University. We thank H. Bloor and A. Moody for field support and E. Maddison, K. Melvin, A. George, M. West and A. Hayton for laboratory support. Samples were collected under Department of Conservation research licence (39411-GEO). Funding was provided by a Durham University Seedcorn Grant, a Natural Environment Research Council Standard Grant to R.G.H., A.L.D., E.L.M. and J.D.H. (NE/P013538/1), a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship to J.D.H. (RFTGNS1201-PD) and COFUND Junior Research Fellowship at Durham University to J.W.

Author information

R.G.H., J.D.H. and A.L.D. conceived and designed the project. J.D.H. and S.J.F. collected the core, and N.V.F. undertook the sampling and geochemical analysis under the supervision of R.G.H., J.D.H. and D.R.G. J.W. undertook the biomarker analysis and interpretation under direction from E.L.M. and R.G.H. J.D. ran the radiocarbon analyses. N.V.F. analysed and interpreted the bulk data under the supervision of R.G.H., A.L.D. and J.D.H. T.C. computed the Alpine Fault landslide scenarios with R.G.H. and J.D.H. R.G.H., J.D.H and N.V.F. wrote the paper with input from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Robert G. Hilton.

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Fig. 1: Tectonic setting of the Southern Alps and the topography of the Lake Paringa catchment.
Fig. 2: Organic matter in Lake Paringa core PA6m1.
Fig. 3: Sources of organic matter in Lake Paringa during earthquake cycles.