Modelling studies have demonstrated that the nutrient and carbon cycles in the Southern Ocean play a central role in setting the air–sea balance of CO2 and global biological production1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Box model studies1,2,3,4 first pointed out that an increase in nutrient utilization in the high latitudes results in a strong decrease in the atmospheric carbon dioxide partial pressure (). This early research led to two important ideas: high latitude regions are more important in determining atmospheric than low latitudes, despite their much smaller area, and nutrient utilization and atmospheric are tightly linked. Subsequent general circulation model simulations show that the Southern Ocean is the most important high latitude region in controlling pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 because it serves as a lid to a larger volume of the deep ocean5,6. Other studies point out the crucial role of the Southern Ocean in the uptake and storage of anthropogenic carbon dioxide7 and in controlling global biological production8. Here we probe the system to determine whether certain regions of the Southern Ocean are more critical than others for air–sea CO2 balance and the biological export production, by increasing surface nutrient drawdown in an ocean general circulation model. We demonstrate that atmospheric CO2 and global biological export production are controlled by different regions of the Southern Ocean. The air–sea balance of carbon dioxide is controlled mainly by the biological pump and circulation in the Antarctic deep-water formation region, whereas global export production is controlled mainly by the biological pump and circulation in the Subantarctic intermediate and mode water formation region. The existence of this biogeochemical divide separating the Antarctic from the Subantarctic suggests that it may be possible for climate change or human intervention to modify one of these without greatly altering the other.
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I.M. was supported by the DOE Office of Science while at Princeton University, and by the NOAA Postdoctoral Program in Climate and Global Change, administered by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, while at MIT. We thank R. Slater for help with the Princeton GCM, D. Sigman and M. Follows for discussions, and R. Anderson for comments that improved the manuscript.
About this article
Nature Communications (2016)