What on Earth Have We Been Burning? Deciphering Sedimentary Records of Pyrogenic Carbon. Academic Article uri icon


  • Humans have interacted with fire for thousands of years, yet the utilization of fossil fuels marked the beginning of a new era. Ubiquitous in the environment, pyrogenic carbon (PyC) arises from incomplete combustion of biomass and fossil fuels, forming a continuum of condensed aromatic structures. Here, we develop and evaluate 14C records for two complementary PyC molecular markers, benzene polycarboxylic acids (BPCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), preserved in aquatic sediments from a suburban and a remote catchment in the United States (U.S.) from the mid-1700s to 1998. Results show that the majority of PyC stems from local sources and is transferred to aquatic sedimentary archives on subdecadal to millennial time scales. Whereas a small portion stems from near-contemporaneous production and sedimentation, the majority of PyC (?90%) experiences delayed transmission due to "preaging" on millennial time scales in catchment soils prior to its ultimate deposition. BPCAs (soot) and PAHs (precursors of soot) trace fossil fuel-derived PyC. Both markers parallel historical records of the consumption of fossil fuels in the U.S., yet never account for more than 19% total PyC. This study demonstrates that isotopic characterization of multiple tracers is necessary to constrain histories and inventories of PyC and that sequestration of PyC can markedly lag its production.

publication date

  • November 7, 2017