Inputs, losses and transformations of nitrogen and phosphorus in the pelagic North Atlantic Ocean

A. F. Michaels, D. Olson, Jorge Louis Sarmiento, J. W. Ammerman, K. Fanning, R. Jahnke, A. H. Knap, F. Lipschultz, J. M. Prospero

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The North Atlantic Ocean receives the largest allochthonous supplies of nitrogen of any ocean basin because of the close proximity of industrialized nations. In this paper, we describe the major standing stocks, fluxes and transformations of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) in the pelagic regions of the North Atlantic, as one part of a larger effort to understand the entire N and P budgets in the North Atlantic Ocean, its watersheds and overlying atmosphere. The primary focus is on nitrogen, however, we consider both nitrogen and phosphorus because of the close inter-relationship between the N and P cycles in the ocean. The oceanic standing stocks of N and P are orders of magnitude larger than the annual amount transported off continents or deposited from the atmosphere. Atmospheric deposition can have an impact on oceanic nitrogen cycling at locations near the coasts where atmospheric sources are large, or in the centers of the highly stratified gyres where little nitrate is supplied to the surface by vertical mixing of the ocean. All of the reactive nitrogen transported to the coasts in rivers is denitrified or buried in the estuaries or on the continental shelves and an oceanic source of nitrate of 0.70.95 x 1012 moles NO3/- y-1 is required to supply the remainder of the shelf denitrification (Nixon et al., this volume). The horizontal fluxes of nitrate caused by the ocean circulation are both large and uncertain. Even the sign of the transport across the equator is uncertain and this precludes a conclusion on whether the North Atlantic Ocean as a whole is a net source or sink of nitrate. We identify a source of nitrate of 3.7-6.4 x 1012 moles NO3/- y-1 within the main thermocline of the Sargasso Sea that we infer is caused by nitrogen fixation. This nitrate source may explain the nitrate divergence observed by Rintoul and Wunsch (1991) in the mid-latitude gyre. The magnitude of nitrogen fixation inferred from this nitrate source would exceed previous estimates of global nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen fixation requires substantial quantities of iron as a micro-nutrient and the calculated iron requirement is comparable to the rates supplied by the deposition of iron associated with Saharan dust. Interannual variability in dust inputs is large and could cause comparable signals in the nitrogen fixation rate. The balance of the fluxes across the basin boundaries suggest that the total stocks of nitrate and phosphate in the North Atlantic may be increasing on time-scales of centuries. Some of the imbalance is related to the inferred nitrogen fixation in the gyre and the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, both of which may be influenced by human activities. However, the fluxes of dissolved organic nutrients are almost completely unknown and they have the potential to alter our perception of the overall mass balance of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)181-226
Number of pages46
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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