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Neogene burial of organic carbon in the global ocean



Organic carbon buried in marine sediment serves as a net sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide and a source of oxygen1,2. The rate of organic carbon burial through geologic history is conventionally established by using the mass balance between inorganic and organic carbon, each with distinct carbon isotopic values (δ13C)3,4. This method is complicated by large uncertainties, however, and has not been tested with organic carbon accumulation data5,6. Here we report a ‘bottom-up’ approach for calculating the rate of organic carbon burial that is independent from mass balance calculations. We use data from 81 globally distributed sites to establish the history of organic carbon burial during the Neogene (roughly 23–3 Ma). Our results show larger spatiotemporal variability of organic carbon burial than previously estimated7,8,9. Globally, the burial rate is high towards the early Miocene and Pliocene and lowest during the mid-Miocene, with the latter period characterized by the lowest ratio of organic-to-carbonate burial rates. This is in contrast to earlier work that interpreted enriched carbonate 13C values of the mid-Miocene as massive organic carbon burial (that is, the Monterey Hypothesis)10,11. Suppressed organic carbon burial during the warm mid-Miocene is probably related to temperature-dependent bacterial degradation of organic matter12,13, suggesting that the organic carbon cycle acted as positive feedback of past global warming.

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Fig. 1: Location of our studied sites overlaid on the Longhurst biogeochemical provinces.
Fig. 2: Provincial OC burial changes and their contribution to the global burial.
Fig. 3: Neogene OC burial in the global ocean.
Fig. 4: Neogene climate and carbon cycle changes.

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Data availability

All individual site, regional and global OC burial data, calculations for region and global OC burial rates and the Neogene global carbon cycle are available at figshare ( These data are also archived as Supplementary Data Files (110) associated with the online version of this article.

Code availability

The algorithm used to calculate regional and global OC burial from TOC MAR of individual sites is publicly available as MATLAB and R code package on GitHub (


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Acknowledgement is made to the donors of the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (grant no. 59797-DNI2 to Y.G.Z.) for support of this research. Z.L.’s visit to Texas A&M University was supported by the International Cooperative Program for Innovative Talents through China Scholarship Council grant no. 201600090202. B.J.W.M. is funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (grant no. NE/S009663/1). We thank S. Zhang for helpful discussions, J. Renaudie and D. Lazarus at the Neptune Database for providing biostratigraphy data for many sites used in this study and J. Dunne for providing the modern OC burial data. We also acknowledge the International Ocean Discovery Program, its funding agencies and scientists around the world for generating the IODP data and making it available. Y.G.Z. conceived this idea onboard IODP Expedition 363 and therefore acknowledges the scientists and crew of that cruise, especially his fellow shipboard organic geochemist M. Yamamoto, for their diligent work and stimulating conversations.

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Authors and Affiliations



Y.G.Z. designed this study. Z.L. collated, analysed and interpreted the data to establish OC burial records, with input from Y.G.Z. M.T. evaluated the records for the Sadler effect and B.J.W.M. ran the carbon cycle models. All authors contributed to the writing, led by Z.L. and Y.G.Z.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yi Ge Zhang.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature thanks Martin Palmer and Bradley Sageman for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Comparisons of TOC% obtained by “subtraction” method and “acidification” method.

a—c. ODP Sites 897-899. d. IODP Site U1482. Navy blue squares are the measurements on board by subtraction between total and carbonate carbon contents, while blue dots are from the acidification method direct measured from carbonate-free samples. e. Linear regression of TOC contents determined by two independent methods. The regression equation is expressed as y = 0.8653*x, with R2 = 0.523, p-value = 1.38e-17 and RMSE =0.593, suggesting a significant linear relationship at the 0.05 level of significance. The dashed grey line indicated the one-to-one correspondence of the two variables.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparisons of TOC% reported by DSDP, ODP or IODP expeditions from nearby locations.

a. IODP U1513 vs DSDP 258. b. IODP U1417 vs DSDP 178. c. IODP U1467 vs ODP 716. d. IODP U1327 vs ODP 889A. e. IODP U1341 vs DSDP 188. f. IODP U1424 vs ODP 794. g. ODP 904 vs DSDP 612. Site details are shown in Supplemental Data 10.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Sadler effect evaluation.

a. Changes in averaging intervals and their ranges between cores for 1 Ma time bins. The large black points show median values. The vertical black lines show the range from minimum to maximum averaging interval. The small grey points show the averaging intervals for individual cores in each time bin. The colored horizontal lines show the mean values for 3 age bins selected to capture the general U-shaped trend in OC MAR. b. Probability density functions of averaging intervals calculated for each core grouped into three age bins (>17.5 Ma, 10—17.5 Ma, and 2.5 to 10 Ma). c. Time-series of relative changes in global OC MAR (black) and global averaging interval (blue) expressed as a sedimentation rate using the power-law scaling of Sadler (1981). d. Scatter plot of global OC MAR and the global averaging interval expressed as a sedimentation rate showing a poor correlation.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Individual site TOC MARs over four time slices during the Neogene.

a. 20 Ma (early Miocene), b. 15 Ma (middle Miocene), c. 10 Ma (late Miocene), and d. 5 Ma (early Pliocene). Paleogeographic maps were reconstructed using Gplates software68, with the sites rotated back to their paleo-locations. The contours of OC burial rate were obtained by performing IDW (Inverse distance weight function) interpolation of the data from individual sites (black dots, see Fig. 1 for site labels).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Alternative approaches to define provinces of the world’s ocean.

a. IHO Sea Areas provinces. According to the IHO Sea Areas provinces zoning method, the global ocean is divided into the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans are further divided into the North and South Atlantic and the South, North and West Pacific, resulting in a total of 8 provinces. b. FAO Fishing Areas provinces. This method divides the global ocean into 19 geographical regions. Different shapes and colors indicate IODP (red diamonds), ODP (maroon dots), and DSDP (blue squares) site locations.

Extended Data Fig. 6 "Modern" OC burial rates of the global ocean.

The map was generated by data from Dunne et al. (2007, 2012). Also shown are "modern" (Pleistocene) burial rates of our 81 IODP sites (in diamond squares) color coded with the same scheme of the Dunne map.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Comparing OC burial rates of different locations over several stages of the “Monterey period”.

OC accumulation rates for the Monterey Formation (EL Capitan) are compared with sites from the eastern equatorial Pacific (EEP, Site 1338), Bay of Bengal (Site U1451), Southwest African continental Shelf (Site 362) and open ocean (Site 1335). Note that OC burial rates for the Monterey Formation are generally higher than the open ocean site, but lower than other sites.

Extended Data Fig. 8 An example to show how OC MAR is calculated (Site U1337).

A flow chart that uses data from Site 1337 as an example to illustrate the procedures of deriving the sedimentation rate (b) from the age-depth relationship (a), together with the TOC% and dry bulk density data (c) to produce the (d) TOC mass accumulation rate (MAR).

Extended Data Fig. 9 Controlling factors for OC burial in our studied sites.

a. map shows either TOC% or sedimentation rate (SR) control on OC burial rates of each site. b. A histogram to present the number and percentage of sites controlled by either TOC%, or SR, as well as the ones with unclear relationships.

Extended Data Table 1 Information of the modified Longhurst biogeochemical provinces used in this study and their associated TOC MARs records

Supplementary information

Peer Review File.

Supplementary Data 1

Site information and TOC MARs.

Supplementary Data 2

Longhurst biogeochemical province information and their modern/Neogene OC burial.

Supplementary Data 3

IHO ocean zonation information and their modern/Neogene OC burial.

Supplementary Data 4

FAO ocean zonation information and their modern/Neogene OC burial.

Supplementary Data 5

IODP sites palaeogeography and visualization of their TOC MARs over the Neogene.

Supplementary Data 6

Neogene global OC burial changes according to carbon cycle models.

Supplementary Data 7

Calculations of the flux and isotopic value of Neogene carbon input into the surficial system.

Supplementary Data 8

Linear fitting results between TOC MARs and SR, TOC%, and DBD of each site.

Supplementary Data 9

Sadler effect evaluation.

Supplementary Data 10

Location, water depth and distance of sites used in Extended Data Fig. 2.

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Li, Z., Zhang, Y.G., Torres, M. et al. Neogene burial of organic carbon in the global ocean. Nature 613, 90–95 (2023).

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