Erosion-induced massive organic carbon burial and carbon emission in the Yellow River basin, China
Abstract. Soil erosion and terrestrial deposition of soil organic carbon (SOC) can potentially play a significant role in global carbon cycling. Assessing the redistribution of SOC during erosion and subsequent transport and burial is of critical importance. Using hydrological records of soil erosion and sediment load, and compiled organic carbon (OC) data, estimates of the eroded soils and OC induced by water in the Yellow River basin during the period 1950–2010 were assembled. The Yellow River basin has experienced intense soil erosion due to combined impact of natural process and human activity. Over the period, 134.2 ± 24.7 Gt of soils and 1.07 ± 0.15 Gt of OC have been eroded from hillslopes based on a soil erosion rate of 1.7–2.5 Gt yr−1. Approximately 63% of the eroded soils were deposited in the river system, while only 37% were discharged into the ocean. For the OC budget, approximately 0.53 ± 0.21 Gt (49.5%) was buried in the river system, 0.25 ± 0.14 Gt (23.5%) was delivered into the ocean, and the remaining 0.289 ± 0.294 Gt (27%) was decomposed during the erosion and transport processes. This validates the commonly held assumption that 20–40% of the eroded OC would be oxidized after erosion. Erosion-induced OC redistribution on the landscape likely represented a carbon source, although a large proportion of OC was buried. In addition, about half of the terrestrially redeposited OC (49.4%) was buried behind dams, revealing the importance of dam trapping in sequestering the eroded OC. Although several uncertainties need to be better constrained, the obtained budgetary results provide a means of assessing the redistribution of the eroded OC within the Yellow River basin. Human activities have significantly altered its redistribution pattern over the past decades.