Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

An unshakable carbon budget for the Himalaya

An Author Correction to this article was published on 22 December 2021

This article has been updated


The erosion and weathering of mountain ranges exert a key control on the long-term (105–106 yr) cycling of carbon between Earth’s surface and crust. The net carbon budget of a mountain range reflects the co-existence of multiple carbon sources and sinks, with corresponding fluxes remaining difficult to quantify. Uncertain responses of these carbon fluxes due to the stochastic nature of erosional processes further complicate the extrapolation of short-term observations to longer, climatically relevant timescales. Here, we quantify the evolution of the organic and inorganic carbon fluxes in response to the 2015 Gorkha earthquake (Mw 7.8) in the central Himalaya. We find that the Himalayan erosion acts as a net carbon sink due mainly to efficient biospheric organic carbon export. Our high-resolution time series encompassing four monsoon seasons before and after the Gorkha earthquake reveal that coseismic landslides did not significantly perturb large-scale Himalayan sediment and carbon fluxes. This muted response of the central Himalaya to a geologically frequent perturbation such as the Gorkha earthquake further suggests that our estimates are representative of at least interglacial timescales.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Map of the central Himalaya and location of the studied drainage basin.
Fig. 2: Total water discharge and sediment yield of the Narayani River during different monsoon seasons.
Fig. 3: OCbio, Casil + Mgsil and SO42–carb as a function of the discharge of the Narayani River.
Fig. 4: Total carbon fluxes and mean net erosional carbon budget for the Narayani basin through four monsoon seasons.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

All data analysed in this study are available in the Research Collection of ETH Zurich at Source data are provided with this paper.

Change history


  1. Berner, R. A. & Canfield, D. E. A new model for atmospheric oxygen over Phanerozoic time. Am. J. Sci. 289, 333–361 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Walker, J. C. G., Hays, P. B. & Kasting, J. F. A negative feedback mechanism for the long-term stabilization of Earth’s surface temperature. J. Geophys. Res. Ocean. 86, 9776–9782 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. West, A. J. Thickness of the chemical weathering zone and implications for erosional and climatic drivers of weathering and for carbon-cycle feedbacks. Geology 40, 811–814 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Galy, V., Peucker-Ehrenbrink, B. & Eglinton, T. Global carbon export from the terrestrial biosphere controlled by erosion. Nature 521, 204–207 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Hilton, R. G. & West, A. J. Mountains, erosion and the carbon cycle. Nat. Rev. Earth Environ. 1, 284–299 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Raymo, M. E. & Ruddiman, W. F. Tectonic forcing of late Cenozoic climate. Nature 357, 57–59 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  7. France-Lanord, C. & Derry, L. A. Organic carbon burial forcing of the carbon cycle from Himalayan erosion. Nature 390, 65–67 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Galy, V., France-Lanord, C. & Lartiges, B. Loading and fate of particulate organic carbon from the Himalaya to the Ganga–Brahmaputra delta. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 72, 1767–1787 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Evans, M. J., Derry, L. A. & France-Lanord, C. Degassing of metamorphic carbon dioxide from the Nepal Himalaya. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 9, Q04021 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hilton, R. G., Gaillardet, J., Calmels, D. & Birck, J. L. Geological respiration of a mountain belt revealed by the trace element rhenium. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 403, 27–36 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Calmels, D., Gaillardet, J., Brenot, A. & France-Lanord, C. Sustained sulfide oxidation by physical erosion processes in the Mackenzie River basin: climatic perspectives. Geology 35, 1003–1006 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Galy, A. & France-Lanord, C. Weathering processes in the Ganges–Brahmaputra basin and the riverine alkalinity budget. Chem. Geol. 159, 31–60 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Bickle, M. J. et al. Chemical weathering outputs from the flood plain of the Ganga. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 225, 146–175 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Kemeny, P. C. et al. Sulfate sulfur isotopes and major ion chemistry reveal that pyrite oxidation counteracts CO2 drawdown from silicate weathering in the Langtang–Trisuli–Narayani River system, Nepal Himalaya. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 294, 43–69 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Horan, K. et al. Carbon dioxide emissions by rock organic carbon oxidation and the net geochemical carbon budget of the Mackenzie River basin. Am. J. Sci. 319, 473–499 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Hilton, R. G. et al. Tropical-cyclone-driven erosion of the terrestrial biosphere from mountains. Nat. Geosci. 1, 759–762 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Wang, J. et al. Long-term patterns of hillslope erosion by earthquake-induced landslides shape mountain landscapes. Sci. Adv. (2020).

  18. Wang, J. et al. Earthquake-triggered increase in biospheric carbon export from a mountain belt. Geology (2016).

  19. Frith, N. V. et al. Carbon export from mountain forests enhanced by earthquake-triggered landslides over millennia. Nat. Geosci. 11, 772–776 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Emberson, R., Hovius, N., Galy, A. & Marc, O. Chemical weathering in active mountain belts controlled by stochastic bedrock landsliding. Nat. Geosci. 9, 42–45 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Emberson, R., Galy, A. & Hovius, N. Weathering of reactive mineral phases in landslides acts as a source of carbon dioxide in mountain belts. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 123, 2695–2713 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Avouac, J. P., Bollinger, L., Lave, J., Cattin, R. & Flouzat, M. Seismic cycle in the Himalayas. C. R. Acad. Sci. IIa 333, 513–529 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Avouac, J.-P., Meng, L., Wei, S., Wang, T. & Ampuero, J.-P. Lower edge of locked Main Himalayan Thrust unzipped by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Nat. Geosci. 8, 708–711 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Roback, K. et al. The size, distribution, and mobility of landslides caused by the 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha earthquake, Nepal. Geomorphology 301, 121–138 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Andermann, C. et al. Impact of transient groundwater storage on the discharge of Himalayan rivers. Nat. Geosci. 5, 127–132 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Andermann, C., Crave, A., Gloaguen, R. & Davy, P. Connecting source and transport: suspended sediments in the Nepal Himalayas. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 352, 158–170 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Morin, G. P. et al. Annual sediment transport dynamics in the Narayani basin, central Nepal: assessing the impacts of erosion processes in the annual sediment budget. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 123, 2341–2376 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hydrological Data and Suspended Sediment Concentration Records (Department of Hydrology and Meteorology of Nepal, 2019).

  29. Marc, O., Hovius, N., Meunier, P., Uchida, T. & Hayashi, S. Transient changes of landslide rates after earthquakes. Geology 43, 883–886 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Menges, J. et al. Variations in organic carbon sourcing along a trans-Himalayan river determined by a Bayesian mixing approach. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 286, 159–176 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Dalai, T. K., Singh, S. K., Trivedi, J. R. & Krishnaswami, S. Dissolved rhenium in the Yamuna River System and the Ganga in the Himalaya: role of black shale weathering on the budgets of Re, Os, and U in rivers and CO2 in the atmosphere. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 66, 29–43 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Rahaman, W., Singh, S. K. & Shukla, A. D. Rhenium in Indian rivers: sources, fluxes, and contribution to oceanic budget. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 13, Q08019 (2012).

  33. Paul, M. Etude des Isotopes de l’Osmium dans les Eaux Souterraines du Bangladesh et les Sédiments Himalayens: Implications et Rôle de l’Erosion Himalayenne sur le Budget Océanique de l’Osmium. PhD Thesis, Université de Lorraine (2018).

  34. Pierson-Wickmann, A. C., Reisberg, L. & France-Lanord, C. The Os isotopic composition of Himalayan river bedloads and bedrocks: importance of black shales. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 176, 203–218 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. France-Lanord, C., Evans, M., Hurtrez, J. E. & Riotte, J. Annual dissolved fluxes from central Nepal rivers: budget of chemical erosion in the Himalayas. C. R. Geosci. 335, 1131–1140 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Bhatt, M. P., Hartmann, J. & Acevedo, M. F. Seasonal variations of biogeochemical matter export along the Langtang–Narayani river system in central Himalaya. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 238, 208–234 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Marc, O., Hovius, N., Meunier, P., Gorum, T. & Uchida, T. A seismologically consistent expression for the total area and volume of earthquake-triggered landsliding. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. (2016).

  38. Wang, J. et al. Controls on fluvial evacuation of sediment from earthquake-triggered landslides. Geology 43, 115–118 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Howarth, J. D., Fitzsimons, S. J., Norris, R. J. & Jacobsen, G. E. Lake sediments record cycles of sediment flux driven by large earthquakes on the Alpine fault, New Zealand. Geology 40, 1091–1094 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Marc, O. et al. Long-term erosion of the Nepal Himalayas by bedrock landsliding: the role of monsoons, earthquakes and giant landslides. Earth Surf. Dyn. 7, 107–128 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Xu, C. et al. Two comparable earthquakes produced greatly different coseismic landslides: the 2015 Gorkha, Nepal and 2008 Wenchuan, China events. J. Earth Sci. 27, 1008–1015 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Stevens, V. L. & Avouac, J. P. Millenary Mw > 9.0 earthquakes required by geodetic strain in the Himalaya. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 1118–1123 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Galy, V. et al. Efficient organic carbon burial in the Bengal fan sustained by the Himalayan erosional system. Nature 470, 407–411 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Hemingway, J. D. et al. Microbial oxidation of lithospheric organic carbon in rapidly eroding tropical mountain soils. Science 360, 209–212 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Lupker, M. et al. Predominant floodplain over mountain weathering of Himalayan sediments (Ganga basin). Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 84, 410–432 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Torres, M. A. et al. The acid and alkalinity budgets of weathering in the Andes–Amazon system: insights into the erosional control of global biogeochemical cycles. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 450, 381–391 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Garzanti, E. et al. Mineralogical and chemical variability of fluvial sediments 2. Suspended-load silt (Ganga–Brahmaputra, Bangladesh). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 302, 107–120 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Galy, V., Beyssac, O., France-Lanord, C. & Eglinton, T. Recycling of graphite during Himalayan erosion: a geological stabilization of carbon in the crust. Science 322, 943–945 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Lupker, M., France-Lanord, C., Galy, V., Lavé, J. & Kudrass, H. Increasing chemical weathering in the Himalayan system since the Last Glacial Maximum. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 365, 243–252 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Hein, C. J. et al. Post-glacial climate forcing of surface processes in the Ganges–Brahmaputra river basin and implications for carbon sequestration. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 478, 89–101 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Lenard, S. J. P. et al. Steady erosion rates in the Himalayas through late Cenozoic climatic changes. Nat. Geosci. 13, 448–452 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Lehner, B., Verdin, K. & Jarvis, A. New global hydrography derived from spaceborne elevation data. Eos 89, 93–104 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Larsen, I. J., Montgomery, D. R. & Korup, O. Landslide erosion controlled by hillslope material. Nat. Geosci. 3, 247–251 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Märki, L. et al. Molecular tracing of riverine soil organic matter from the central Himalaya. Geophys. Res. Lett. (2020).

  55. Eckhardt, K. How to construct recursive digital filters for baseflow separation. Hydrol. Process. 19, 507–515 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. McIntyre, C. P. et al. Online 13C and 14C gas measurements by EA-IRMS–AMS at ETH Zürich. Radiocarbon 59, 893–903 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Wolff-Boenisch, D., Gabet, E. J., Burbank, D. W., Langner, H. & Putkonen, J. Spatial variations in chemical weathering and CO2 consumption in Nepalese High Himalayan catchments during the monsoon season. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 73, 3148–3170 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Tipper, E. T. et al. The short term climatic sensitivity of carbonate and silicate weathering fluxes: insight from seasonal variations in river chemistry. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 70, 2737–2754 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Burke, A. et al. Sulfur isotopes in rivers: insights into global weathering budgets, pyrite oxidation, and the modern sulfur cycle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 496, 168–177 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Lupker, M., France-Lanord, C. & Lartiges, B. Impact of sediment–seawater cation exchange on Himalayan chemical weathering fluxes. Earth Surf. Dyn. 4, 675–684 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Horan, K. et al. Mountain glaciation drives rapid oxidation of rock-bound organic carbon. Sci. Adv. (2017).

  62. Miller, C. A., Peucker-Ehrenbrink, B., Walker, B. D. & Marcantonio, F. Re-assessing the surface cycling of molybdenum and rhenium. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 75, 7146–7179 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Pierson-Wickmann, A. C., Reisberg, L. & France-Lanord, C. Behavior of Re and Os during low-temperature alteration: results from Himalayan soils and altered black shales. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 66, 1539–1548 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


L.M., M.L. and T.E. were supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (no. 200021_166067). C. F.-L. and J.L. were supported by the ANR Calimero. We thank K. B. Adhikari from the hydrological station in Narayanghat for the daily sampling. E. Tipper (University of Cambridge) is thanked for kindly providing the confluence samples.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



L.M. and M.L. designed the study. M.L., C.F.-L., J.L., A.P.G. and S.G. organized and maintained daily sampling in Narayanghat. J.L. provided the depth profile samples, and L.M., M.L., C.F.-L., J.L. and S.G. conducted the soil sampling. L.M., N.H. and F.L.-W. prepared the samples and preformed the measurements. S.G. conducted the landslide volume calculation. L.M., M.L. and T.E. made the carbon flux calculations. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the data and the redaction of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lena Märki.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Geoscience thanks Jin Wang, Kathryn Clark and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: James Super.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Measured discharge, calculated direct discharge and cumulative sediment flux of the Narayani River for the monsoon seasons 2015-2017.

Daily discharge (dark blue; ref. 28) and calculated direct discharge (light blue; calculated with a digital filter55 as described in ref. 27) for the months April – October of the years 2015, 2016 and 2017. The cumulative sediment flux is shown in grey and was only measured for the monsoon season (June-September).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Daily sediment load of the Narayani as a function of the total and direct discharge.

Daily sediment load data of the four studied years during the monsoon months plotted in log-log space against (a) the total river discharge (data from ref. 28) and (b) the direct river discharge (calculated with a digital filter55 as described in ref. 27) of the Narayani River at the sampling station in Narayanghat. The black line shows the linear correlation between the direct discharge and the sediment load with the one-sigma confidence intervals.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Mixing model used to disentangle the concentrations of petrogenic and biospheric organic carbon in suspended sediments.

TOC-1 plotted against the fraction modern of the bulk suspended sediment colored as a function of the sampling year. The biospheric and petrogenic endmembers used in the mixing model for disentangling OCbio and OCpetro inputs are schematically shown.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Biospheric organic carbon export in the water column of the Narayani River.

OCbio export per day [kg*m-2day-1] at different depths in the Narayani River calculated with depth profile samples and water velocity data27. The mean channel depth at the sampling station lies between 15-20 m (ref. 27).

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 5 TOC concentration and fraction modern in sediments of rivers close to the sampling station.

(a) TOC concentration and (b) fraction modern in suspended sediments of the two tributaries shortly upstream the confluence and of two stations in the Narayani river colored as a function of the sampling date.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 6 Cl and SO4 2-concentrations as a function of the river discharge in Narayanghat.

(a) Cl and (b) SO42− concentrations plotted against the discharge in log-log space. The anion concentrations of the samples 2015-2017 were measured and corrected for atmospheric input. Exponential functions (blacklines with the one-sigma confidence interval shown by the dashed lines) through the measured values were used to determine the concentrations of the 2010 samples with the river discharge (Q): [Cl] = e9.57 * Q-0.79 (r2=0.73); [SO4] = e7.45 * Q-0.3 (r2=0.51). For Cl, the 2017 concentrations were not taken into account (see Supplementary Information).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Cl versus Na concentrations of the measured monsoon seasons in Narayanghat.

Cl and Na concentrations are corrected for atmospheric input.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Sum of cations as a function of the Re concentration of global and Himalayan rivers.

Literature data are from refs. 10,15,31,32,61,62 and are illustrated by the diamonds. Dashed lines show linear regression between the measured sum of cations and Re concentrations of all the rivers (black) and of the Himalayan rivers (blue). Circles display the measured mean sum of cations in the Narayani per monsoon season as a function of the estimated Re concentration using the linear correlation of Himalayan rivers.

Extended Data Table 1 Gorkha earthquake-triggered landslide volumes and lowering rates
Extended Data Table 2 Soil samples used to define the biospheric organic carbon endmember of the mixing model

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 2

Discharge and sediment load data of the Narayani River.

Source Data Fig. 3

Fraction modern and TOC concentration measured on suspended sediments, major ions concentrations measured on filtered water samples and calculated chemical weathering and OC export fluxes.

Source Data Fig. 4

Total calculated carbon fluxes associated with erosion in the Narayani catchment.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 4

Fraction modern and TOC concentrations of suspended sediment samples within the water column of the Narayani.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 5

Suspended sediment samples from rivers close to the sampling station in Narayanghat.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Märki, L., Lupker, M., France-Lanord, C. et al. An unshakable carbon budget for the Himalaya. Nat. Geosci. 14, 745–750 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene