Global riverine discharge of organic matter represents a substantial source of terrestrial dissolved and particulate organic carbon to the oceans. This input from rivers is, by itself, more than large enough to account for the apparent steady-state replacement times of 4,00-6,000 yr for oceanic dissolved organic carbon. But paradoxically, terrestrial organic matter, derived from land plants, is not detected in seawater and sediments in quantities that correspond to its inputs. Here we present natural 14C and 13C data from four rivers that discharge to the western North Atlantic Ocean and find that these rivers are sources of old (14C-depleted) and young (14C-enriched) terrestrial dissolved organic carbon, and of predominantly old terrestrial particulate organic carbon. These findings contrast with limited earlier data that suggested terrestrial organic matter transported by rivers might be generally enriched in 14C from nuclear testing, and hence newly produced. We also find that much of the young dissolved organic carbon can be selectively degraded over the residence times of river and coastal waters, leaving an even older and more refractory component for oceanic export. Thus, pre-ageing and degradation may alter significantly the structure, distributions and quantities of terrestrial organic matter before its delivery to the oceans.
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