On geological time scales, the erosion of carbon from the terrestrial biosphere and its burial in sediments can counter CO2 emissions from the solid Earth. Earthquakes may increase the erosion of this biospheric carbon and supply it to mountain rivers by triggering landslides, which rapidly strip hillslopes of vegetation and soil. Over the long term, elevated river sediment loads may promote more efficient carbon burial. However, riverine export of earthquake-mobilized carbon has remained poorly constrained. Here we quantify biospheric carbon discharge by the Zagunao River following a large earthquake with a unique set of samples collected before and after the A.D. 2008 Mw 7.9 Wenchuan (China) earthquake. Radioactive and stable carbon isotopes are used to isolate the biospheric carbon, accounting for rock-derived organic carbon inputs. River discharge of biospheric carbon doubled in the downstream reaches, characterized by moderate landslide impact, following the earthquake. The rapid export of carbon from earthquake-triggered landslides appears to outpace its degradation on hillslopes while sediment loads are elevated. This means that enhanced river discharge of biospheric carbon following large earthquakes can link active tectonics to CO2 drawdown.

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