Link to USGS home page
125 years of science for America 1879-2004
Sound Waves Monthly Newsletter - Coastal Science and Research News from Across the USGS
Home || Sections: Spotlight on Sandy | Fieldwork | Research | Outreach | Meetings | Awards | Staff & Center News | Publications || Archives


Fluvial Discharge of Black Carbon and Its Role in the Global Carbon Cycle

in this issue:
 previous story | next story

collecting water samples in shallow water in the Eeel River using stainless-steel pressure vessels
Collecting water samples for analyses of black carbon and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Water samples were collected from the headwaters of the Eel River just east of Lake Pillsbury. In an effort to minimize black carbon and PAH sorption onto sampling containers, water samples were collected by using precleaned 40-L stainless-steel pressure vessels. Water samples were collected by carefully submersing the pressure vessels under the air-water interface. Water from the Eel was allowed to flow naturally into each pressure vessel; then, each vessel was capped and transported to a nearby hotel for water filtration.
With escalating human influence on coastlines, coastal and estuarine environments are exposed to increasing amounts of combustion byproducts, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and black carbon. Black carbon and PAHs result from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (for example, coal and petroleum) and biomass (for example, vegetation burned in forest fires and slash-and-burn agriculture). The impetus for studying the environmental cycling of black carbon results from its importance as (1) a "sink" for atmospheric carbon, (2) a tracer for recent and historical combustion processes, (3) a mediator of the Earth's radiative heat balance, and (4) a carrier of inorganic and organic pollutants. For example, the formation of airborne black-carbon particles and their subsequent deposition into soils and aquatic systems result in organic matter being shunted to the geosphere rather than to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a well-known greenhouse gas. On a global level, circumvention of greenhouse-gas formation via black-carbon production may be linked to essential climate issues. The importance of black carbon on a global scale is further evidenced by its presence in sediment in the central Pacific Ocean, where at one location black carbon was found to compose 12 to 31 percent of the sedimentary organic carbon. In contrast to black carbon, PAHs are typically detected at trace concentrations in the environment. Even at these trace concentrations, many PAHs are toxic and carcinogenic and so may have deleterious effects on organisms in coastal areas. In this study, PAHs are primarily being used to delineate sources of black carbon (see below).

filtering water samples
Filtration of water samples from the Eel River. Water samples were filtered for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) by pressurizing the sample vessels with ultra-high-purity nitrogen. The exit line of the pressure vessel was connected to a 142-mm-diameter stainless-steel filter holder housing a precleaned glass-fiber filter. Additional water samples were simultaneously filtered for black carbon.
Despite several decades of research dedicated to the global cycling of black carbon, the amount and source(s) of black carbon discharged into the ocean by rivers remain largely unknown. Black carbon may enter rivers and streams either directly from atmospheric deposition or indirectly from runoff. Characterizing the river discharge of black carbon (and PAHs) into the oceans will help us to quantify the abundance and source(s) of combustion byproducts to the river-coast-ocean transition zone (that is, coastal margins). Quantifying the fluvial discharge of black carbon is an essential step toward evaluating the role of anthropogenic and natural combustion processes on the global carbon cycle. For this reason, Siddhartha Mitra, a Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellow with the Western Coastal and Marine Geology Team (WCMG), is examining black carbon and PAH discharge from three typical North American coastal-discharge systems: (1) a small mountainous West Coast river (the Eel River), which discharges directly into the ocean; (2) a deltaic river (the Mississippi River), which discharges into an active deltaic shelf; and (3) an estuary (Chesapeake Bay), where much of the discharge is stored within the estuary. The objectives of this research are (1) to quantify fluvial black carbon and PAH abundance and (2) to attempt to ascertain sources of these combustion byproducts within each coastal system by coupling the use of high-molecular-weight PAH isomer ratios with radiocarbon dating.

Typically, the radiocarbon age of black carbon is used to infer its source. Black carbon derived from biomass burning will have a modern 14C age, whereas black carbon derived from combustion of fossil fuel will have an ancient 14C age (depleted in radiocarbon). Because black carbon in coastal environments originates from a mixture of biomass and fossil-fuel combustion processes and is transported across various distances, applying mixing models of apparent radiocarbon ages to black carbon in coastal environments may be fraught with uncertainties. These uncertainties can be reduced by using source-specific markers of natural organic-matter combustion, such as PAHs. Black carbon and PAHs are cogenerated during combustion of such organic matter as biomass or fossil fuels. Therefore, PAHs can offer useful information about anthropogenic versus naturally derived sources of black carbon.

In October 2001, Siddhartha Mitra and Tom Lorenson (WCMG), as part of the Marine Organic Geochemistry Project, conducted fieldwork in the Eel River of northern California. Suspended sediment was collected at two stations, one near the headwaters of the river and the other near its mouth. During water collection, care was taken to avoid the influence of lumbermills and agricultural areas. Water was filtered in the field to obtain samples for analysis of black carbon and PAHs. These filter samples were frozen and transported to the WCMG organic-geochemistry laboratory directed by Keith Kvenvolden and Bob Rosenbauer for subsequent chemical analyses. Similar field investigations have already been conducted in the Chesapeake Bay with assistance from Bill Orem's geochemistry research group in Reston (consisting of Margo Corum, Antonio Mannino, Sarah Kleckner, and Harry Lerch), and in the Mississippi River with assistance from Pete Swarzenski (St. Petersburg).

On a global scale, few rivers have been sampled for black-carbon discharge. One recent study estimated that in 1999 the Mississippi River discharged approximately 5 percent of the world's annual black carbon discharged to the ocean. Furthermore, much of this discharge was derived from the combustion of fossil fuel (coal). Thus, accurate quantification of the fluvial discharge of combustion byproducts from a composite of coastal discharge systems, as in this study, will help to constrain the societal implications of combustion on the global carbon cycle.

in this issue:
 previous story | next story


Mailing List:

print this issue print this issue

in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Honduras Coral Reefs

Black Carbon

Miami Canal Surveys

Cape Cod Lakes

Outreach African Dust Lecture

Rock Stories

Falmouth, MA Public Schools

WHFC Web Site

Meetings Coral Reefs

Sea-Level Rise & Coastal Disasters

Chesapeake Bay

Water Quality

Restoring Louisiana's Coastal Ecosystems

ArcGIS 8.1

Marine Technology

Staff & Center News Two New Postdocs

Student & Visiting Scientist

Data Management

WHFC Visitors

Cape Cod Marathon

Publications Dec./Jan. Publications List U. S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Sound Waves Monthly Newsletter

email Feedback | USGS privacy statement | Disclaimer | Accessibility

This page is
Updated May 06, 2014 @ 02:18 PM (THF)