Geomorphological controls on fluvial carbon storage in headwater peatlands

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Geomorphological controls and catchment sediment characteristics control the formation of floodplains and affect their capacity to sequester carbon. Organic carbon stored in floodplains is typically a product of pedogenic development between periods of mineral sediment deposition. However, in organically-dominated upland catchments with a high sediment load, eroded particulate organics may also be fluvially deposited with potential for storage and/or oxidation. Understanding the redistribution of terrestrial carbon laterally, beyond the bounds of river channels is important, especially in eroding peatland systems where fluvial particulate organic carbon exports are often assumed to be oxidised. Floodplains have the potential to be both carbon cycling hotspots and areas of sequestration. Understanding of the interaction of carbon cycling and the sediment cascade through floodplain systems is limited. This paper examines the formation of highly organic floodplains downstream of heavily eroded peatlands in the Peak District, UK. Reconstruction of the history of the floodplains suggests that they have formed in response to periods of erosion of organic soils upstream. We present a novel approach to calculating a carbon stock within a floodplain, using XRF and radiograph data recorded during Itrax core scanning of sediment cores. This carbon stock is extrapolated to the catchment scale, to assess the importance of these floodplains in the storage and cycling of organic carbon in this area. The carbon stock estimate for the floodplains across the contributing catchments is between 3482-13460 tonnes, equating on an annualised basis to 0.8-4.5% of the modern-day POC flux. Radiocarbon analyses of bulk organic matter in floodplain sediments revealed that a substantial proportion of organic carbon was associated with re-deposited peat and has been used as a tool for organic matter source determination. The average age of these samples (3010 years BP) is substantially older than Infrared Stimulated Luminesence dating which demonstrated that the floodplains formed between 430 and 1060 years ago. Our data suggest that floodplains are an integral part of eroding peatland systems, acting as both significant stores of aged and eroded organic carbon and as hotspots of carbon turnover.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1675-1693
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2019


  • Floodplain carbon storage
  • Itrax core scanning
  • carbon cycling hotspots
  • floodplain geomorphology
  • headwater peatland erosion


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