Aerobic respiration along isopycnals leads to overestimation of the isotope effect of denitrification in the ocean water column

Dario Marconi, Sebastian Kopf, Patrick A. Rafter, Daniel Mikhail Sigman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The nitrogen (N) isotopes provide an integrative geochemical tool for constraining the fixed N budget of the ocean. However, N isotope budgeting requires a robust estimate for the organism-scale nitrogen isotope effect of denitrification, in particular as it occurs in water column denitrification zones (εwcd). Ocean field data interpreted with the Rayleigh model have typically yielded estimates for εwcd of between 20 and 30‰. However, recent findings have raised questions about this value. In particular, culture experiments can produce a substantially lower isotope effect (∼13‰) under conditions mimicking those of ocean suboxic zones. In an effort to better understand prior field estimates of εwcd, we use a geochemical multi-box model to investigate the combined effects of denitrification, aerobic respiration, and isopycnal exchange on the δ15N of nitrate. In the context of this admittedly simplistic model, we consider three isopycnals extending from the Southern Ocean to the Eastern Tropical North Pacific (ETNP). We show that the data from the ETNP suboxic zone can be reproduced with an εwcd of 13‰, given a rate of aerobic respiration consistent with the nutrient data on these isopycnals and a plausible range in the δ15N of the sinking flux being remineralized. We discuss the limitations of our analysis, additional considerations, as well as possible data-based tests for the proposal of a lower εwcd than previously estimated. All else held constant, a lower εwcd would imply a lower global ocean rate of denitrification that is more similar to the estimated rate of N input to the global ocean, providing a major impetus for further investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)417-432
Number of pages16
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - Jan 15 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


  • Denitrification
  • Isotope effect
  • Rayleigh model


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