Articles | Volume 4, issue 2
07 May 2007
07 May 2007

An oceanic fixed nitrogen sink exceeding 400 Tg N a−1 vs the concept of homeostasis in the fixed-nitrogen inventory

L. A. Codispoti

Abstract. Measurements of the N2 produced by denitrification, a better understanding of non-canonical pathways for N2 production such as the anammox reaction, better appreciation of the multiple environments in which denitrification can occur (e.g. brine pockets in ice, within particles outside of suboxic water, etc.) suggest that it is unlikely that the oceanic denitrification rate is less than 400 Tg N a−1. Because this sink term far exceeds present estimates for nitrogen fixation, the main source for oceanic fixed-N, there is a large apparent deficit (~200 Tg N a−1) in the oceanic fixed-N budget. The size of the deficit appears to conflict with apparent constraints of the atmospheric carbon dioxide and sedimentary δ15N records that suggest homeostasis during the Holocene. In addition, the oceanic nitrate/phosphate ratio tends to be close to the canonical Redfield biological uptake ratio of 16 (by N and P atoms) which can be interpreted to indicate the existence of a powerful feed-back mechanism that forces the system towards a balance. The main point of this paper is that one cannot solve this conundrum by reducing the oceanic sink term. To do so would violate an avalanche of recent data on oceanic denitrification.

A solution to this problem may be as simple as an upwards revision of the oceanic nitrogen fixation rate, and it is noted that most direct estimates for this term have concentrated on nitrogen fixation by autotrophs in the photic zone, even though nitrogen fixing genes are widespread. Another simple explanation may be that we are simply no longer in the Holocene and one might expect to see temporary imbalances in the oceanic fixed-N budget as we transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene in line with an apparent denitrification maximum during the Glacial-Holocene transition. Other possible full or partial explanations involve plausible changes in the oceanic nitrate/phosphate and N/C ratios, an oceanic phosphorus budget that may also be in deficit, and oscillations in the source and sink terms that are short enough to be averaged out in the atmospheric and geologic records, but which could, perhaps, last long enough to have significant impacts.

Final-revised paper