Expansion of pelagic denitrification during early Pleistocene cooling

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Bioavailable nitrogen is removed from the oceans in oxygen-deficient benthic and pelagic environments by denitrification. Future warming is predicted to reduce ocean oxygenation and to cause hypoxic regions to expand, potentially accelerating denitrification. A compilation of high-resolution sedimentary nitrogen isotope (δ15N) records from the eastern tropical Pacific, North Pacific, and the Arabian Sea, and a global multi-site survey are presented as evidence for weak pelagic denitrification at the end of the Pliocene warm period. Mean δ15N values increased in the major oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) between 2.1 and 1.5 Ma. Pelagic denitrification strengthened during a period of long term global cooling, despite solubility driven increases in initial oxygen contents of Antarctic intermediate and Subantarctic mode waters ventilating the OMZs. This trend is opposite to the predicted mean trend for a cooling ocean as well as to the observed glacial-interglacial variation. Several alternatives to explain the shift are proposed, including a rise in net respiration, a progressive increase in the ventilation age of the deep ocean associated with million year scale, secular cooling, and a shoaling of the remotely ventilated thermocline to shallow depths corresponding to the zone of peak subsurface respiration. Given no evidence for a net increase in production, we assert that large-scale, climate-driven changes in ocean circulation regulate long timescale variations in the extent of pelagic denitrification. Additional data and modeling are required to fully explain the observations. © 2013 Elsevier B.V.

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Earth and Planetary Science Letters