A mechanistic model of an upper bound on oceanic carbon export as a function of mixed layer depth and temperature
Abstract. Export production reflects the amount of organic matter transferred from the ocean surface to depth through biological processes. This export is in large part controlled by nutrient and light availability, which are conditioned by mixed layer depth (MLD). In this study, building on Sverdrup's critical depth hypothesis, we derive a mechanistic model of an upper bound on carbon export based on the metabolic balance between photosynthesis and respiration as a function of MLD and temperature. We find that the upper bound is a positively skewed bell-shaped function of MLD. Specifically, the upper bound increases with deepening mixed layers down to a critical depth, beyond which a long tail of decreasing carbon export is associated with increasing heterotrophic activity and decreasing light availability. We also show that in cold regions the upper bound on carbon export decreases with increasing temperature when mixed layers are deep, but increases with temperature when mixed layers are shallow. A meta-analysis shows that our model envelopes field estimates of carbon export from the mixed layer. When compared to satellite export production estimates, our model indicates that export production in some regions of the Southern Ocean, particularly the subantarctic zone, is likely limited by light for a significant portion of the growing season.