Mechanistic controls on diverse fates of terrestrial organic components in the East China Sea

Chun Zhu*, Thomas Wagner, Helen M. Talbot, Johan W H Weijers, Jian Ming Pan, Richard D. Pancost

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

61 Citations (Scopus)


Terrestrial carbon transferred from the land to sea is a critical component of the global carbon cycle. A range of geochemical proxies has been developed to fingerprint the fate of terrestrial organic matter (TOM) in marine sediments. However, discrepancies among different proxies limit our ability to quantify and interpret the terrestrial signals in marine sediments, with consequences for the investigation of both the modern carbon cycle and past environmental change. To mechanistically understand these discrepancies, we examined the distributions of a range of terrestrial proxies and their aquatic counterparts (i.e. marine proxies) in the Yangtze river-East China Sea (YR-ECS) shelf system, where TOM experiences extensive modification during transport and burial. TOM proxies in the YR-ECS system collectively fit a power-law model but with distinct attenuation rates (the a* values) for individual molecular proxy groups. Among a range of TOM proxies, the modeled a* values decrease in the order: soil-marker BHPs>triterpenols>lignin>HMW n-alkanols>branched GDGTs>HMW n-alkanes for biomarkers; and Rsoil>BIT>%TOMiso for proxies tracing %TOM. Rapid loss of TOM components through dissociation in the narrow estuary, followed by oxidation over the wide open shelf, are best described by power curves. Inherent chemical reactivity (i.e. the number of functional groups), responses to hydraulic sorting, and in situ production regulate the individual attenuation rates. Of them, chemical reactivity plays the most important role on proxy behavior, supported by a strong correlation between a* values and standard molal Gibbs energies. Both, physical protection and chemical reactivity fundamentally control the overall behavior of TOM components, with the relative importance being setting-dependant: The former is relatively important in the estuary, whereas the later is the primary control over the open shelf. Moreover, regional variation of different marine-counterparts is also significant over the river-ECS shelf system, seemingly regulated by regional nutrient distributions. Therefore, for %TOM estimates using molecular ratio approaches, the specific behavior of individual terrestrial components and marine-counterparts and the physical, biological and chemical characteristics of depositional settings all need to be considered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-143
Number of pages15
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2013


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