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Shale as a Source of Organic Carbon in Floodplain Sediments of a Mountainous Watershed

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Fox, Patricia M.; Bill, Markus ; Heckman, Katherine ; Conrad, Mark ; Anderson, Carolyn ; Keiluweit, Marco ; Nico, Peter S.

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Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences


Shales contain high levels of organic carbon (OC) and represent a large fraction of the Earth's reduced carbon stocks. While recent evidence suggests that shale‐derived OC may be actively cycled in riverine systems, this process is poorly understood and not currently considered in global C models. Through the use of sediment density fractionations, extractions, radiocarbon measurements, and chemical characterization, we provide information on the abundance, chemistry, and mobility of shale‐derived OC in floodplain sediments of a shale‐rich mountainous watershed. The heavy fraction of the sediment, representing mineral‐associated OC, is the largest (84 ± 6% of TOC) and oldest (Δ14C values −224 to −853‰) OC pool. Evidence of shale‐derived OC is observed in all sediment C pools (i.e., occluded light fraction, water‐soluble, and pyrophosphate‐extractable) except the free light fraction, which is entirely modern. Relatively consistent chemistry was observed across samples for extracted and density‐separated OC, despite wide ranges of Δ14C values. Carbon spectroscopy revealed that floodplain sediments had a higher degree of functionalized aromatic groups and lower carbonate content compared to shale collected nearby, consistent with chemical alteration and mixing with other C sources in the floodplain. We estimate that approximately 23–34% of sediment OC is derived from shale, with implications for other shale‐derived elements (e.g., N). This study demonstrates the important contribution of shale‐OC, particularly in environments with low litter inputs. The large impact of radiocarbon‐dead shale‐OC, which has a thermally altered chemical structure distinct from plant litter, on Δ14C values and reactivity of sediment‐OC must be considered.


shale; kerogen; carbon cycle; organic carbon; radiocarbon; sediments


Fox, Patricia M.; Bill, Markus; Heckman, Katherine; Conrad, Mark; Anderson, Carolyn; Keiluweit, Marco; Nico, Peter S. 2020. Shale as a Source of Organic Carbon in Floodplain Sediments of a Mountainous Watershed. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences. 125(2): 245. 21 p.

Last updated on: August 25, 2021