Effects of patchy ocean fertilization on atmospheric carbon dioxide and biological production

Anand Gnanadesikan, Jorge Louis Sarmiento, Richard D. Slater

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73 Scopus citations


Increasing oceanic productivity by fertilizing nutrient-rich regions with iron has been proposed as a mechanism to offset anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide. Earlier studies examined the impact of large-scale fertilization of vast reaches of the ocean for long periods of time. We use an ocean general circulation model to consider more realistic scenarios involving fertilizing small regions (a few hundred kilometers on a side) for limited periods of time (of order 1 month). A century after such a fertilization event, the reduction of atmosphere carbon dioxide is between 2% and 44% of the initial pulse of organic carbon export to the abyssal ocean. The fraction depends on how rapidly the surface nutrient and carbon fields recover from the fertilization event. The modeled recovery is very sensitive to the representation of biological productivity and remineralization. Direct verification of the uptake would be nearly impossible since changes in the air-sea flux due to fertilization would be much smaller than those resulting from natural spatial variability. Because of the sensitivity of the uptake to the long-term fate of the iron and organic matter, indirect verification by measurement of the organic matter flux would require high vertical resolution and long-term monitoring. Finally, the downward displacement of the nutrient profile resulting from an iron-induced productivity spurt may paradoxically lead to a long-term reduction in biological productivity. In the worst-case scenario, removing 1 ton of carbon from the atmosphere for a century is associated with a 30-ton reduction in biological export of carbon.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-1 - 19-17
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science


  • Carbon sequestration
  • Fisheries impacts
  • General circulation model
  • Iron fertilization


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