Global rates of water-column denitrification derived from nitrogen gas measurements

Tim Devries, Curtis Deutsch, François Primeau, Bonnie Chang, Allan Devol

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

124 Scopus citations


Biologically available nitrogen (N) limits phytoplankton growth over much of the ocean. The rate at which N is removed from the contemporary ocean by denitrifying bacteria is highly uncertain 1-3. Some studies suggest that N losses exceed inputs 2,4-6; others argue for a balanced budget 3,7,8. Here, we use a global ocean circulation model to simulate the distribution of N 2 gas produced by denitrifying bacteria in the three main suboxic zones in the open ocean. By fitting the model to measured N 2 gas concentrations, we infer a globally integrated rate of water-column denitrification of 66 ±6 Tg N yr -1. Taking into account isotopic constraints on the fraction of denitrification occurring in the water column versus marine sediments, we estimate that the global rate of N loss from marine sediments and the oceanic water column combined amounts to around 230 ±60 Tg N yr -1. Given present estimates of N input rates, our findings imply a net loss of around 20 ± 70 Tg of N from the global ocean each year, indistinguishable from a balanced budget. A balanced N budget, in turn, implies that the marine N cycle is governed by strong regulatory feedbacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)547-550
Number of pages4
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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