The recalcitrance of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) that leads to its accumulation in the deep ocean is typically considered a function of its reactivity. Yet, recent experimental evidence has shown that DOC from the deep ocean, if concentrated, can support significant microbial growth. This supports an alternative hypothesis that [DOC] may become too dilute to support microbial growth. The radiocarbon signature of DOC is a key constraint on the DOC cycling that allows testing of the plausibility of this hypothesis. Here we use a box model of diluted DOC in the deep ocean and its radiocarbon signature that is constrained on the basis of the new experimental evidence, as well as current knowledge of deep ocean DOC cycling to quantitatively test the dilution hypothesis. We explore the uncertainty in model results across a range of plausible dilution thresholds, additional processes, and fluxes of DOC to the deep ocean. Results show that the model is able to predict the observed radiocarbon signature for a dilution threshold close to the observed deep ocean [DOC] and for fluxes close to published estimates. Sensitivity analysis shows that this result is highly sensitive to variations in the dilution threshold and the assumption that diluted DOC is able to survive ocean overturning. The experimental findings can be alternatively reconciled over a large range of different conditions assuming a small pool of diluted DOC with a modern radiocarbon signature, consistent with recent observations, and offering a parsimonious interpretation of dilution with existing hypotheses on DOC recalcitrance.
- dissolved organic carbon; radiocarbon
- recalcitrance of dissolved organic carbon
- dilution of dissolved organic carbon