Sensitivity of δ15N of nitrate, surface suspended and deep sinking particulate nitrogen to seasonal nitrate depletion in the Southern Ocean

Martin J. Lourey, Thomas W. Trull, Daniel Mikhail Sigman

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We report measurements of the δ15N of nitrate, suspended particulate nitrogen (PN), and sinking PN from cruises and moored sediment traps in the Subantarctic Zone (SAZ) and Polar Frontal Zone (PFZ) south of Australia. As expected, surface water nitrate δ15N increased as nitrate was consumed during the spring/summer bloom. In contrast, the seasonal cycles of surface water suspended and sinking PN δ15N did not fit expectations from nitrate assimilation alone. Rather than increasing, the δ15N of surface suspended PN was relatively constant in the SAZ (at ∼1‰), and decreased during the summer in the PFZ (from ∼0 to ∼-4‰), most likely due to the production of low 15N PN by summertime ammonium recycling. Deep sediment trap PN δ15N also displayed seasonal decreases (from ∼4 to ∼1‰ in the SAZ, and from ∼3.5 to ∼0.5‰ in the PFZ), which correlated with PON flux magnitude. During high-flux periods, exported PN δ15N values were close to expectations from nitrate-based export, but low-flux periods exhibited higher δ15N, consistent with either a reduction in the isotope effect of nitrate assimilation or more extensive isotopic alteration of the sinking material during low-flux periods. The mass balance between net nitrate supply and exported PN that links sinking flux δ15N to nitrate utilization requires only that the annually integrated (rather than the seasonally varying) sinking flux of PN δ15N correlates with nitrate depletion. While a correlation between annually integrated sinking PN δ15N to nitrate depletion was observed in both the SAZ and PFZ, the sensitivity of sinking PN δ15N to nitrate depletion was lower than expected. Moreover, the seasonal observations raise the possibility that loss of the summertime high-flux period represents an alternative explanation to increased nitrate utilization for the high sedimentary PN δ15N observed during glacial periods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-1 - 7-18
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • Nitrate
  • Particulate nitrogen
  • Subantarctic


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