Articles | Volume 4, issue 3
Research article
12 Aug 2016
Research article |  | 12 Aug 2016

Impact of sediment–seawater cation exchange on Himalayan chemical weathering fluxes

Maarten Lupker, Christian France-Lanord, and Bruno Lartiges

Abstract. Continental-scale chemical weathering budgets are commonly assessed based on the flux of dissolved elements carried by large rivers to the oceans. However, the interaction between sediments and seawater in estuaries can lead to additional cation exchange fluxes that have been very poorly constrained so far. We constrained the magnitude of cation exchange fluxes from the Ganga–Brahmaputra river system based on cation exchange capacity (CEC) measurements of riverine sediments. CEC values of sediments are variable throughout the river water column as a result of hydrological sorting of minerals with depth that control grain sizes and surface area. The average CEC of the integrated sediment load of the Ganga–Brahmaputra is estimated ca. 6.5 meq 100 g−1. The cationic charge of sediments in the river is dominated by bivalent ions Ca2+ (76 %) and Mg2+ (16 %) followed by monovalent K+ (6 %) and Na+ (2 %), and the relative proportion of these ions is constant among all samples and both rivers. Assuming a total exchange of exchangeable Ca2+ for marine Na+ yields a maximal additional Ca2+ flux of 28  ×  109 mol yr−1 of calcium to the ocean, which represents an increase of ca. 6 % of the actual river dissolved Ca2+ flux. In the more likely event that only a fraction of the adsorbed riverine Ca2+ is exchanged, not only for marine Na+ but also Mg2+ and K+, estuarine cation exchange for the Ganga–Brahmaputra is responsible for an additional Ca2+ flux of 23  ×  109 mol yr−1, while ca. 27  ×  109 mol yr−1 of Na+, 8  ×  109 mol yr−1 of Mg2+ and 4  ×  109 mol yr−1 of K+ are re-absorbed in the estuaries. This represents an additional riverine Ca2+ flux to the ocean of 5 % compared to the measured dissolved flux. About 15 % of the dissolved Na+ flux, 8 % of the dissolved K+ flux and 4 % of the Mg2+ are reabsorbed by the sediments in the estuaries. The impact of estuarine sediment–seawater cation exchange appears to be limited when evaluated in the context of the long-term carbon cycle and its main effect is the sequestration of a significant fraction of the riverine Na flux to the oceans. The limited exchange fluxes of the Ganga–Brahmaputra relate to the lower than average CEC of its sediment load that do not counterbalance the high sediment flux to the oceans. This can be attributed to the nature of Himalayan river sediment such as low proportion of clays and organic matter.

Short summary
Rivers export the products of continental weathering to the oceans. It is important to accurately constrain these fluxes to better understand global biogeochemical cycles. The riverine export of major cation species in particular contributes to regulate the long-term carbon cycle. In this work we quantify some additional fluxes to the ocean that may occur when solid sediments react with seawater in estuaries. These fluxes have been only poorly constrained so far.