Articles | Volume 19, issue 3
Research article
03 Mar 2015
Research article |  | 03 Mar 2015

Sediment flow paths and associated organic carbon dynamics across a Mediterranean catchment

C. Boix-Fayos, E. Nadeu, J. M. Quiñonero, M. Martínez-Mena, M. Almagro, and J. de Vente

Abstract. Terrestrial sedimentation buries large amounts of organic carbon (OC) annually, contributing to the terrestrial carbon sink. The temporal significance of this sink will strongly depend on the attributes of the depositional environment, but also on the characteristics of the OC reaching these sites and its stability upon deposition. The goal of this study was to characterise the OC during transport and stored in the depositional settings of a medium-sized catchment (111 km2) in SE Spain, to better understand how soil erosion and sediment transport processes determine catchment-scale OC redistribution. Total organic carbon (TOC), mineral-associated organic carbon (MOC), particulate organic carbon (POC), total nitrogen (N) and particle size distributions were determined for soils (i), suspended sediments (ii) and sediments stored in a variety of sinks such as sediment wedges behind check dams (iii), channel bars (iv), a small delta in the conjunction of the channel and a reservoir downstream (v), and the reservoir at the outlet of the catchment (vi). The data show that the OC content of sediments was approximately half of that in soils (9.42 ± 9.01 g kg−1 versus 20.45 ± 7.71 g kg−1, respectively) with important variation between sediment deposits. Selectivity of mineral and organic material during transport and deposition increased in a downstream direction. The mineralisation, burial or in situ incorporation of OC in deposited sediments depended on their transport processes and on their post-sedimentary conditions. Upstream sediments (alluvial wedges) showed low OC contents because they were partially mobilised by non-selective erosion processes affecting deeper soil layers and with low selectivity of grain sizes (e.g. gully and bank erosion). We hypothesise that the relatively short transport distances, the effective preservation of OC in microaggregates and the burial of sediments in the alluvial wedges gave rise to low OC mineralisation, as is arguably indicated by C : N ratios similar to those in soils. Deposits in middle stream areas (fluvial bars) were enriched in sand, selected upon deposition and had low OC concentrations. Downstream, sediment transported over longer distances was more selected, poorly microaggregated, and with a prevalence of silt and clay fractions and MOC pool. Overall, the study shows that OC redistribution in the studied catchment is highly complex, and that the results obtained at finer scales cannot be extrapolated at catchment scale. Selectivity of particles during detachment and transport, and protection of OC during transport and deposition are key for the concentration and quality of OC found at different depositional settings. Hence, eco-geomorphological processes during the different phases of the erosion cycle have important consequences for the temporal stability and preservation of the buried OC and in turn for the OC budget.

Short summary
This study follows organic carbon from soils along sediment flow paths at catchment scale to analyse the evolution of OC pools. Selectivity of particles during detachment and transport, and protection of OC during transport and deposition are key for the concentration and quality of OC at depositional settings and for the terrestrial carbon sink. OC can also be increased by ecological processes and by replacement in eroded areas, converting catchments into relevant sinks for C budget.