Changes in ocean denitrification during Late Carboniferous glacial–interglacial cycles

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Abstract

Denitrification (the process by which nitrate and nitrite are reduced to nitrogen gas) in the oxygen-minimum zones of modern oceans is an important part of the global nitrogen cycle. Variations in rates of denitrification over Quaternary glacial–interglacial timescales may have affected global climate. Evidence of denitrification has been reported from some older marine systems, but it is unclear whether denitrification rates varied during pre-Quaternary glacial cycles. Here we present ratios of organic carbon to nitrogen and nitrogen isotope data from the Upper Carboniferous black shales of the North American mid-continent. In these cyclic deposits, we find evidence of variations in the intensity of denitrification in the eastern tropical Panthalassic Ocean associated with glacially driven sea-level changes. Sedimentary δ15N increases during the interval of rapid sea-level rise in each cycle, indicative of intensified denitrification, before returning to background levels as sea level stabilized during the interglacial phase. Nearly identical patterns of denitrification have been observed in the eastern tropical Pacific during the Quaternary period. We therefore conclude that ice ages have produced similar oceanographic conditions and nitrogen cycle dynamics in these regions over the past 300 million years.

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Figure 1: Palaeogeography of Late Carboniferous North America during interglacial sea-level highstands.
Figure 2: Study sections.
Figure 3: δ15Ntot versus δ13Corg for study units.
Figure 4: Sea-level curve and upwelling-zone δ15N data for 20 kyr BP to present.

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Acknowledgements

We thank W. Lynn Watney and the Kansas Geological Survey for access to the study cores, T. Phillips for drafting services and M. Altabet for a review of the manuscript. This project was supported by grants to T.J.A. from the National Science Foundation (EAR-0310072, EAR-0618003 and EAR-0745574) and the University of Cincinnati Research Council.

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Correspondence to Thomas Algeo.

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Algeo, T., Rowe, H., Hower, J. et al. Changes in ocean denitrification during Late Carboniferous glacial–interglacial cycles. Nature Geosci 1, 709–714 (2008) doi:10.1038/ngeo307

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