Lithium isotopes in large rivers reveal the cannibalistic nature of modern continental weathering and erosion Academic Article uri icon


  • The erosion of major mountain ranges is thought to be largely cannibalistic, recycling sediments that were deposited in the ocean or on the continents prior to mountain uplift. Despite this recognition, it has not yet been possible to quantify the amount of recycled material that is presently transported by rivers to the ocean. Here, we have analyzed the Li content and isotope composition (delta Li-7) of suspended sediments sampled along river depth profiles and bed sands in three of the largest Earth’s river systems (Amazon, Mackenzie and Ganga-Brahmaputra rivers). The delta Li-7 values of river-sediments transported by these rivers range from +5.3 to -3.6 parts per thousand and decrease with sediment grain size. We interpret these variations as reflecting a mixture of unweathered rock fragments (preferentially transported at depth in the coarse fraction) and present-day weathering products (preferentially transported at the surface in the finest fraction). Only the finest surface sediments contain the complementary reservoir of Li solubilized by water-rock interactions within the watersheds. Li isotopes also show that river bed sands can be interpreted as a mixture between unweathered fragments of igneous and sedimentary rocks. A mass budget approach, based on Li isotopes, Li/Al and Na/Al ratios, solved by an inverse method allows us to estimate that, for the large rivers analyzed here, the part of solid weathering products formed by present-day weathering reactions and transported to the ocean do not exceed 35%. Li isotopes also show that the sediments transported by the Amazon, Mackenzie and Ganga-Brahmaputra river systems are mostly sourced from sedimentary rocks (>60%) rather than igneous rocks. This study shows that Li isotopes in the river particulate load are a good proxy for quantifying both the erosional rock sources and the fingerprint of present-day weathering processes. Overall, Li isotopes in river sediments confirm the cannibalistic nature of erosion and weathering. (C) 2014 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

publication date

  • September 2014