Carbon flux and landscape evolution in epigenic karst aquifers modeled from geochemical mass balance


Lee J. Florea


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January 2015


This paper considers the contributions of epigenic karst processes as a major element of the carbon cycle and a significant agent of landscape evolution. Geochemical models developed from monitoring data and water samples are used to estimate the variation and magnitude of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) flux in karst landscapes at several scales, from local to global. At the local scale, the Cumberland River watershed of southeast Kentucky, these geochemical models are also used to evaluate the potential role of sulfur in the production of DIC and to compute an estimated rate of landscape erosion. Geochemical modeling using ionic species and modeled discharge reveal a variable rate of DIC flux driven by large fluctuations in calcite saturation and discharge. Ratios of reaction products and principal component analyses (PCA) suggest that some bedrock dissolution may be driven by the oxidation of reduced sulfur derived from brines entrained into the karst aquifers. Over the 3730 km2 of carbonate exposure in the Cumberland River, 25.8–62.4 Gg/yr of carbon dioxide (CO2) is conveyed from the atmosphere through the dissolution of carbonate. At the global scale, this translates to 123–296 Tg/yr of CO2 delivered by karst processes into the aqueous system. The bedrock portion of DIC equates to a flux of 32.6 ± 2.6 m3 – 35.2 ± 2.8 m3 of bedrock during the period of study of which 29% was dolomite. This translates to a landscape erosion rate of 13.1–17.9 mm/ka in the 3.45–4.32 km2 of carbonate exposure in the studied watershed. Based upon 16+ km of cave survey data spanning a vertical range of 72 to 75 m above base level, this suggests that cave development in the watershed spans the Plio‐Pleistocene. Using the modeled erosion rates, the ages of cave levels, 4.03–5.71, 3.08–4.56, 1.57–2.43, 1.01–1.67, 0.45–0.91, and < 0.45 Ma, are in good agreement with regional studies of Plio‐Pleistocene landscape evolution in the Appalachian Lowland Plateaus. Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


Dissolved Inorganic Carbon, Epigenetic Karst, Landscape Erosion Rate, Redmond Creek, Cumberland Escarpment

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