Basin-scale transport of hydrothermal dissolved metals across the South Pacific Ocean



Hydrothermal venting along mid-ocean ridges exerts an important control on the chemical composition of sea water by serving as a major source or sink for a number of trace elements in the ocean1,2,3. Of these, iron has received considerable attention because of its role as an essential and often limiting nutrient for primary production in regions of the ocean that are of critical importance for the global carbon cycle4. It has been thought that most of the dissolved iron discharged by hydrothermal vents is lost from solution close to ridge-axis sources2,5 and is thus of limited importance for ocean biogeochemistry6. This long-standing view is challenged by recent studies which suggest that stabilization of hydrothermal dissolved iron may facilitate its long-range oceanic transport7,8,9,10. Such transport has been subsequently inferred from spatially limited oceanographic observations11,12,13. Here we report data from the US GEOTRACES Eastern Pacific Zonal Transect (EPZT) that demonstrate lateral transport of hydrothermal dissolved iron, manganese, and aluminium from the southern East Pacific Rise (SEPR) several thousand kilometres westward across the South Pacific Ocean. Dissolved iron exhibits nearly conservative (that is, no loss from solution during transport and mixing) behaviour in this hydrothermal plume, implying a greater longevity in the deep ocean than previously assumed6,14. Based on our observations, we estimate a global hydrothermal dissolved iron input of three to four gigamoles per year to the ocean interior, which is more than fourfold higher than previous estimates7,11,14. Complementary simulations with a global-scale ocean biogeochemical model suggest that the observed transport of hydrothermal dissolved iron requires some means of physicochemical stabilization and indicate that hydrothermally derived iron sustains a large fraction of Southern Ocean export production.

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Figure 1: Cruise track and station locations.
Figure 2: Interpolated zonal concentration for GEOTRACES Eastern Pacific Zonal Transect.
Figure 3: Relationship between dissolved trace metals and 3He west of SEPR.
Figure 4: Results of biogeochemical model simulations.


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We thank the captain and crew of the RV Thomas G. Thompson (TGT cruise 303) for their support during the 57-day mission. Samples were collected on board ship by C. Parker and C. Zurbrick, from the US GEOTRACES sampling system maintained and operated by G. Cutter. We thank the many people who have devoted time and effort to the international GEOTRACES programme. This work was funded by US National Science Foundation awards OCE-1237011 to J.A.R., OCE-1237034 to P.N.S., OCE-1232991 to W.J.J., OCE-1130870 to C.R.G., and OCE-1131731 and OCE-1260273 to J.W.M. Model simulations made use of the N8 HPC facilities, funded by the N8 consortium and EPSRC grant EP/K000225/1. C.R.G. also acknowledges support from a Humboldt Research Award. J.A.R. was funded in part through JISAO by the PMEL-Earth Oceans Interactions programme. This is JISAO publication number 2388 and PMEL publication number 4255.

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J.A.R. participated on the EPZT and determined Ald and Mnd; P.N.S. interpreted the Fed data; C.R.G. co-designed the study and participated in the EPZT; W.J.J. collected 3Hexs data; J.W.M. co-designed the study, participated in the EPZT, and collected Fe(II) data; B.M.S. participated in the EPZT and determined Fed; A.T. conducted the modelling experiments and interpreted their results. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Joseph A. Resing or Alessandro Tagliabue.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Relationship between dissolved trace metals and 3HE.

Depth-integrated concentrations of dissolved Fe (a), and dissolved Mn (b), versus depth-integrated concentration of 3Hexs, over a depth range of 2,200–2,640 m. Sample station numbers are indicated for each data symbol.

Extended Data Figure 2 Comparison of modelled (rectangles) and measured (circular symbols) concentrations of 3Hexs, between EPZT cruise station 36 (far left) and station 17 (far right).

Extended Data Figure 3 Sections of modelled Fed transport and decay using a dynamic ligand global-circulation model45 (see Methods).

The model scenarios listed here are the same as those presented in Fig. 4. a, 1 × Fe; b, 10 × Fe; c, 1 × Fe + 1 × ligands; d, 1 × Fe + 10 × ligands; e, 10 × Fe + 10 × ligands.

Extended Data Figure 4 Impacts on carbon export from model simulations.

a, Percentage contribution to carbon export production due to the input of hydrothermal Fed, not considering the addition of hydrothermal ligands. b, Additional percentage contribution from the addition of hydrothermal ligands to the simulation shown in a. b represents the difference between the total impact from the addition of both hydrothermal Fed and ligands (see Fig. 4c) compared to the input hydrothermal Fed without the addition of the ligands shown in a.

Extended Data Figure 5 Ligand flux model experiments.

Two experiments were run to assess the impact of the flux of ligands associated with hydrothermal activity on the oceanic budget. a, Model simulation with no hydrothermal ligand flux. b, Model simulation with ligand flux equal to the flux of hydrothermal Fe.

Extended Data Table 1 Model data comparison

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Resing, J., Sedwick, P., German, C. et al. Basin-scale transport of hydrothermal dissolved metals across the South Pacific Ocean. Nature 523, 200–203 (2015).

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