Landslide impact on organic carbon cycling in a temperate montane forest


R. G. Hilton, Department of Geography, Durham University, Science Laboratories, South Road, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK. Email:


In humid, forested mountain belts, bedrock landslides can harvest organic carbon from above ground biomass and soil (OCmodern) while acting to refresh the landscape surface and turnover forest ecosystems. Here the impact of landslides on organic carbon cycling in 13 river catchments spanning the length of the western Southern Alps, New Zealand is assessed over four decades. Spatial and temporal landslide maps are combined with the observed distribution and measured variability of hillslope OCmodern stocks. On average, it is estimated that landslides mobilized 7.6 ± 2.9 tC km−2 yr−1 of OCmodern, ~30% of which was delivered to river channels. Comparison with published estimates of OCmodern export in river suspended load suggests additional erosion of OCmodern by small, shallow landslides or overland flow in catchments. The exported OCmodern may contribute to geological carbon sequestration if buried in sedimentary deposits. Landslides may have also contributed to carbon sequestration over shorter timescales (<100 years). 5.4 ± 3.0 tC km−2 yr−1 of the eroded OCmodern was retained on hillslopes, representing a net-carbon sink following re-vegetation of scar surfaces. In addition, it was found that landslides caused rapid turnover of the landscape, with rates of 0.3% of the surface area per decade. High rates of net ecosystem productivity were measured in this forest of 94 ± 11 tC km−2 yr−1, which is consistent with rapid landscape turnover suppressing ecosystem retrogression. Landslide-OCmodern yields and rates of turnover vary between river catchments and appear to be controlled by gradients in climate (precipitation) and geomorphology (rock exhumation rate, topographic slope). Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.