Fueling export production: Nutrient return pathways from the deep ocean and their dependence on the Meridional Overturning Circulation

J. B. Palter, Jorge Louis Sarmiento, A. Gnanadesikan, J. Simeon, R. D. Slater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


In the Southern Ocean, mixing and upwelling in the presence of heat and freshwater surface fluxes transform subpycnocline water to lighter densities as part of the upward branch of the Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC). One hypothesized impact of this transformation is the restoration of nutrients to the global pycnocline, without which biological productivity at low latitudes would be significantly reduced. Here we use a novel set of modeling experiments to explore the causes and consequences of the Southern Ocean nutrient return pathway. Specifically, we quantify the contribution to global productivity of nutrients that rise from the ocean interior in the Southern Ocean, the northern high latitudes, and by mixing across the low latitude pycnocline. In addition, we evaluate how the strength of the Southern Ocean winds and the parameterizations of subgridscale processes change the dominant nutrient return pathways in the ocean. Our results suggest that nutrients upwelled from the deep ocean in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and subducted in Subantartic Mode Water support between 33 and 75% of global export production between 30° S and 30° N. The high end of this range results from an ocean model in which the MOC is driven primarily by wind-induced Southern Ocean upwelling, a configuration favored due to its fidelity to tracer data, while the low end results from an MOC driven by high diapycnal diffusivity in the pycnocline. In all models, nutrients exported in the SAMW layer are utilized and converted rapidly (in less than 40 years) to remineralized nutrients, explaining previous modeling results that showed little influence of the drawdown of SAMW surface nutrients on atmospheric carbon concentrations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3549-3568
Number of pages20
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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