Assessment of C, N and Si isotopes as tracers of past ocean nutrient and carbon cycling

GEOTRACESPAGES Biological Productivity Working Group Members

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Biological productivity in the ocean directly influences the partitioning of carbon between the atmosphere and ocean interior. Through this carbon cycle feedback, changing ocean productivity has long been hypothesized as a key pathway for modulating past atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and hence global climate. Because phytoplankton preferentially assimilate the light isotopes of carbon and the major nutrients nitrate and silicic acid, stable isotopes of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and silicon (Si) in seawater and marine sediments can inform on ocean carbon and nutrient cycling, and by extension the relationship with biological productivity and global climate. Here we compile water column C, N, and Si stable isotopes from GEOTRACES-era data in four key ocean regions to review geochemical proxies of oceanic carbon and nutrient cycling based on the C, N, and Si isotopic composition of marine sediments. External sources and sinks as well as internal cycling (including assimilation, particulate matter export, and regeneration) are discussed as likely drivers of observed C, N, and Si isotope distributions in the ocean. The potential for C, N, and Si isotope measurements in sedimentary archives to record aspects of past ocean C and nutrient cycling is evaluated, along with key uncertainties and limitations associated with each proxy. Constraints on ocean C and nutrient cycling during late Quaternary glacial-interglacial cycles and over the Cenozoic are examined. This review highlights opportunities for future research using multielement stable isotope proxy applications and emphasizes the importance of such applications to reconstructing past changes in the oceans and climate system.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2020GB006775
Number of pages28
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number7
Early online date22 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2021


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