Carbon dioxide generation and drawdown during active orogenesis of siliciclastic rocks in the Southern Alps, New Zealand

Catriona D. Menzies (Corresponding Author), Sarah L. Wright, Dave Craw, Rachael H. James, Jeffrey C. Alt, Simon C. Cox, Iain K. Pitcairn, Damon A. H. Teagle

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Collisional mountain building influences the global carbon cycle through release of CO2 liberated by metamorphic reactions and promoting mechanical erosion that in turn increases chemical weathering and drawdown of atmospheric CO2. The Southern Alps is a carbonate-poor, siliciclastic mountain belt associated with the active Australian Pacific plate boundary. On-going, rapid tectonic uplift, metamorphism and hydrothermal activity are mobilising carbon. Here we use carbon isotope measurements of hot spring fluids and gases, metamorphic host rocks, and carbonate veins to establish a metamorphic carbon budget.

We identify three major sources for CO2 within the Southern Alps: (1) the oxidation of graphite; (2) consumption of calcite by metamorphic reactions at the greenschist–amphibolite facies boundary, and (3) the dissolution of groundmass and vein-hosted calcite. There is only a minor component of mantle CO2 arising on the Alpine Fault. Hot springs have molar /Ca2+ ∼9, which is substantially higher than produced by the dissolution of calcite indicating that deeper metamorphic processes must dominate.

The total CO2 flux to the near surface environment in the high uplift region of the Southern Alps is estimated to be ∼6.4 × 108 mol/yr. Approximately 87% of this CO2 is sourced from coupled graphite oxidation (25%) and disseminated calcite decarbonation (62%) reactions during prograde metamorphism. Dissolution of calcite and mantle-derived CO2 contribute ∼10% and ∼3% respectively. In carbonate-rich orogens CO2 production is dominated by metamorphic decarbonation of limestones. The CO2 flux to the atmosphere from degassing of hot springs in the Southern Alps is 1.9 to 3.2 × 108 mol/yr, which is 30–50% of the flux to the near surface environment. By contrast, the drawdown of CO2 through surficial chemical weathering ranges between 2.7 and 20 × 109 mol/yr, at least an order of magnitude greater than the CO2 flux to the atmosphere from this orogenic belt. Thus, siliciclastic mountain belts like the Southern Alps are net sinks for atmospheric CO2, in contrast to orogens involving abundant carbonate rocks, such as the Himalaya, that are net CO2 sources.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)305-315
Number of pages11
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date5 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • CO2
  • mountain building
  • carbon isotopes
  • metamorphism
  • carbon cycle
  • chemical weathering


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