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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Nov 20;109(47):19492-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211162109. Epub 2012 Nov 7.

Legacy of human-induced C erosion and burial on soil-atmosphere C exchange.

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Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research, Earth and Life Institute, Université catholique de Louvain, B-1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.


Carbon exchange associated with accelerated erosion following land cover change is an important component of the global C cycle. In current assessments, however, this component is not accounted for. Here, we integrate the effects of accelerated C erosion across point, hillslope, and catchment scale for the 780-km(2) Dijle River catchment over the period 4000 B.C. to A.D. 2000 to demonstrate that accelerated erosion results in a net C sink. We found this long-term C sink to be equivalent to 43% of the eroded C and to have offset 39% (17-66%) of the C emissions due to anthropogenic land cover change since the advent of agriculture. Nevertheless, the erosion-induced C sink strength is limited by a significant loss of buried C in terrestrial depositional stores, which lagged the burial. The time lag between burial and subsequent loss at this study site implies that the C buried in eroded terrestrial deposits during the agricultural expansion of the last 150 y cannot be assumed to be inert to further destabilization, and indeed might become a significant C source. Our analysis exemplifies that accounting for the non-steady-state C dynamics in geomorphic active systems is pertinent to understanding both past and future anthropogenic global change.

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