Red X iconGreen tick iconYellow tick icon

Wednesday 29 August 2018 2:44pm

Sean Fitzsimons image
Professor Sean Fitzsimons

New research shows that large earthquakes may have influenced the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere over millions of years.

The findings are the result of a research collaboration between the University of Otago, Victoria University of Wellington, Durham University in the United Kingdom and GNS Science.

“According to our findings, large earthquakes along New Zealand’s Alpine Fault both mobilise and bury large amounts of carbon and in doing so may remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Dr Jamie Howarth from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences says.

To determine the link between large earthquakes and carbon dioxide levels, researchers examined sediments that have accumulated over the past thousand years at the bottom of Lake Paringa in the Southern Alps.

“We measured the levels of carbon isotopes present in the sediment during and after earthquakes to show that earthquakes on the fault produced over 43 percent of the carbon in the biosphere released from the Alps,” Dr Howarth says.

According to Professor Sean Fitzsimons from the University of Otago’s Department of Geography, simulations of earthquake triggered landslides suggest that 14 million tonnes of carbon are released during each Alpine Fault earthquake.

However, the research team’s findings show these same earthquakes may also draw carbon out of the atmosphere if that carbon is transported to lake and ocean basins.

“Lush vegetation on the mountains draws carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Dr Howarth explains.

“In an earthquake, this vegetation is caught up in landslides, which sends the vegetation and the carbon to rivers, which in turn transport it to lakes and ocean basins where it is rapidly buried, removing it from the atmosphere.”

Professor Fitzsimons says this research is significant because it shows a clear link between tectonic activity and the climate on Earth.

“These findings tell us that the development of mountains plays a critical role in the global carbon cycle over millions of years and provide a piece of the puzzle in understanding how atmospheric carbon is regulated by earth surface processes”.

The findings were published this month in Nature Geoscience.

For further information, contact:

Professor Sean Fitzsimons
University of Otago, Department of Geography

Dr Jamie Howarth,
School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences
Victoria University of Wellington
Mob 021 279 7364

Electronic addresses (including email accounts, instant messaging services, or telephone accounts) published on this page are for the sole purpose of contact with the individuals concerned, in their capacity as officers, employees or students of the University of Otago, or their respective organisation. Publication of any such electronic address is not to be taken as consent to receive unsolicited commercial electronic messages by the address holder.

Back to top