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Large-scale variations in the stoichiometry of marine organic matter respiration


The elemental composition of marine organic matter governs resource competition among plankton, and couples the global cycles of carbon, nutrients and oxygen. Observations have revealed systematic large-scale variation in the ratios of these essential elements removed from surface waters by phytoplankton1,2,3,4,5. However, an impact of this variability on deep ocean properties has not been detected. Here we use a data-constrained ocean circulation model and observed long-term mean distributions of dissolved oxygen and the nutrient phosphate to show that there is a threefold variation across latitudes in the amount of dissolved oxygen consumed per unit of phosphate released during organic matter respiration. This pattern of remineralization ratios is shown to significantly modify the extent and distribution of low-oxygen water masses in the interior ocean. We also find that ocean biomes with distinct light and nutrient availability are characterized by different regional stoichiometries. These findings suggest that in a more stratified ocean, an increase in light exposure and decrease in nutrient concentration could raise the C:P ratio of phytoplankton, and the associated carbon storage by the ocean’s biological pump.

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Figure 1: O2:P regeneration ratios in the sub-surface ocean.
Figure 2: Surface biomes and sub-surface O2:P regeneration ratios.
Figure 3: Impact of variable stoichiometry on low-oxygen waters.

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This research was supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation (OCE-1131548) and by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (grant GBMF3775).

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T.D. performed the model calculations. Both authors designed the study, analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Tim DeVries.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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DeVries, T., Deutsch, C. Large-scale variations in the stoichiometry of marine organic matter respiration. Nature Geosci 7, 890–894 (2014).

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