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Mountains, erosion and the carbon cycle

Abstract

Mountain building results in high erosion rates and the interaction of rocks with the atmosphere, water and life. Carbon transfers that result from increased erosion could control the evolution of Earth’s long-term climate. For decades, attention has focused on the hypothesized role of mountain building in drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) via silicate weathering. However, it is now recognized that mountain building and erosion affect the carbon cycle in other important ways. For example, erosion mobilizes organic carbon (OC) from terrestrial vegetation, transferring it to rivers and sediments, and thereby acting to draw down atmospheric CO2 in tandem with silicate weathering. Meanwhile, exhumation of sedimentary rocks can release CO2 through the oxidation of rock OC and sulfide minerals. In this Review, we examine the mechanisms of carbon exchange between rocks and the atmosphere, and discuss the balance of CO2 sources and sinks. It is demonstrated that OC burial and oxidative weathering, not widely considered in most models, control the net CO2 budget associated with erosion. Lithology strongly influences the impact of mountain building on the global carbon cycle, with an orogeny dominated by sedimentary rocks, and thus abundant rock OC and sulfides, tending towards being a CO2 source.

Key points

  • Erosion resulting from mountain building increases transfer of carbon between the atmosphere and storage in rocks.

  • The traditional view has focused on carbon dioxide (CO2) drawdown by silicate weathering, and its links to climate and erosion.

  • An emerging view also considers CO2 drawdown by organic-carbon burial and CO2 emissions from oxidative weathering of both rock organic carbon and sulfide minerals.

  • CO2 sources and sinks increase with erosion, and the net balance has now been quantified in a handful of locations.

  • Climate (temperature, hydrology) regulates inorganic and organic CO2 sinks, with complex interdependency on erosion.

  • Lithology is important: a mountain range composed of sedimentary rocks may be a weak CO2 sink (or CO2 source), but volcanic rocks favour CO2 drawdown.

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Fig. 1: The geological carbon cycle and transfers of carbon between the atmosphere and rocks.
Fig. 2: Comparison of major fluxes and timescales of relevance in the global carbon cycle.
Fig. 3: A river-catchment view of physical erosion rate versus carbon transfer.
Fig. 4: Net rock–atmosphere CO2 exchange in river catchments.
Fig. 5: A new view of mountains, erosion and the carbon cycle.

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Acknowledgements

R.G.H. was funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (project #678779, ROC-CO2) and a Natural Environment Research Council, UK, Standard Grant NE/P013538/1. A.J.W. was funded by US National Science Foundation grants EAR-1455352 and EAR-1640894. This Review was made possible by many stimulating discussions with colleagues, including at AGU, EGU and Goldschmidt conferences, and with students, postdocs and collaborators. Though there are too many individuals to mention, we have cited the work of many here.

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Contributions

R.G.H. and A.J.W. formulated the Review and identified the themes to be covered. R.G.H. compiled the data sets and drafted the figures. R.G.H. and A.J.W. contributed equally to the discussion and writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Robert G. Hilton or A. Joshua West.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks J. Hemingway, R. Emberson and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Glossary

Mountain building

The formation of a mountain range due to tectonic-plate convergence, folding and faulting, or through dynamic forces that act on Earth’s crust.

Erosion

The movement of mass across Earth’s surface, usually by fluids (granular, liquid or gas; t km−2 year−1).

Drawdown of carbon dioxide

Transfer of C from the CO2 molecule in the atmosphere to bicarbonate, carbonate or organic matter.

Chemical weathering

The chemical processes that disintegrate (break up, loosen) rock, altering its original characteristics and producing weathering products.

Critical zone

The region from the top of the vegetation canopy to the base of the groundwater, where rocks, water, atmosphere and life interact.

Reactivity

The tendency of a substance (atom, molecule) to undergo a reaction; is considered in terms of the individual phase (silicate mineral, organic molecule) and associated acid–base or reduction–oxidation reactions in chemical weathering.

Weathering flux

The rate of the mass transfer of weathering products (t km−2 year−1). Equivalent to the product of total-denudation rate and chemical-weathering intensity.

Weathering thermostat

The response of weathering fluxes to changes in climate that act to stabilize atmospheric CO2 and Earth’s surface temperature; increases in temperature and/or CO2 concentrations cause a response that acts to draw down CO2.

Denudation

The total loss of mass from a landscape, driven by erosion (physical denudation) and/or by chemical weathering (chemical denudation; t km−2 year−1).

Supply-limited weathering

When chemical-weathering reactions are limited by the supply of minerals to react.

Weathering limited

When chemical weathering fluxes are limited by factors that control the rate of reaction, such as temperature and fluid flow.

Landslides

An erosion process that acts to move material in a rapid motion and results in transfer of mass downslope.

Biospheric organic carbon

Carbon derived from living plants and degraded organic matter in soils, up to a few thousands of years in age.

Petrogenic OC

Organic carbon that is rock-derived, typically defined on the basis of being depleted in radiocarbon (therefore, greater than ~60,000 years old).

Weathering profiles

One-dimensional views of the chemical and/or physical changes to rocks as they are exposed to life, water and the atmosphere.

Weathering front

A marked gradient in the chemical composition of a weathering profile where a parameter changes from the original unweathered rock to the solid weathering products.

Weathering intensity

The ratio between chemical denudation and total denudation (represented by a fraction or percentage).

Shales

A type of sedimentary rock that is typically fine-grained and mostly made up of silt and clay-sized clasts, and can contain up to a few weight percent of carbonate, OCpetro and sulfide minerals.

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Hilton, R.G., West, A.J. Mountains, erosion and the carbon cycle. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 284–299 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0058-6

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