Deconvolving the controls on the deep ocean's silicon stable isotope distribution

Gregory F. De Souza, Richard D. Slater, John P. Dunne, Jorge Louis Sarmiento

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37 Scopus citations


We trace the marine biogeochemical silicon (Si) cycle using the stable isotope composition of Si dissolved in seawater (expressed as δ30Si). Open ocean δ30Si observations indicate a surprisingly strong influence of the physical circulation on the large-scale marine Si distribution. Here, we present an ocean general circulation model simulation that deconvolves the physical and biogeochemical controls on the δ30Si distribution in the deep oceanic interior. By parsing dissolved Si into its preformed and regenerated components, we separate the influence of deep water formation and circulation from the effects of biogeochemical cycling related to opal dissolution at depth. We show that the systematic meridional δ30Si gradient observed in the deep Atlantic Ocean is primarily determined by the preformed component of Si, whose distribution in the interior is controlled solely by the circulation. We also demonstrate that the δ30Si value of the regenerated component of Si in the global deep ocean is dominantly set by oceanic regions where opal export fluxes to the deep ocean are large, i.e. primarily in the Southern Ocean's opal belt. The global importance of this regionally dynamic Si cycling helps explain the observed strong physical control on the oceanic δ30Si distribution, since most of the regenerated Si present within the deep Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Oceans is in fact transported into these basins by deep waters flowing northward from the Southern Ocean. Our results thus provide a mechanistic explanation for the observed δ30Si distribution that emphasizes the dominant importance of the Southern Ocean in the marine Si cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)66-76
Number of pages11
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Jul 15 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • General circulation model
  • Marine silicon cycle
  • Ocean biogeochemical cycles
  • Silicon isotopes
  • Southern Ocean


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