Local versus basin-scale limitation of marine nitrogen fixation

Thomas Weber, Curtis Deutsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Nitrogen (N) fixation by diazotrophic plankton is the primary source of this crucial nutrient to the ocean, but the factors limiting its rate and distribution are controversial. According to one view, the ecological niche of diazotrophs is primarily controlled by the ocean through internally generated N deficits that suppress the growth of their competitors. A second view posits an overriding limit from the atmosphere, which restricts diazotrophs to regions where dust deposition satisfies their high iron (Fe) requirement, thus separating N sources from sinks at a global scale. Here we use multiple geochemical signatures of N2 fixation to show that the Fe limitation of diazotrophs is strong enough to modulate the regional distribution of N 2 fixation within ocean basins - particularly the Fe-poor Pacific - but not strong enough to influence its partition between basins, which is instead governed by rates of N loss. This scale-dependent limitation of N 2 fixation reconciles local observations of Fe stress in diazotroph communities with an inferred spatial coupling of N sources and sinks. Within this regime of intermediate Fe control, the oceanic N reservoir would respond only weakly to enhanced dust fluxes during glacial climates, but strongly to the reduced fluxes hypothesized under anthropogenic climate warming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8741-8746
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number24
StatePublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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