The Agulhas Current Transports Signals of Local and Remote Indian Ocean Nitrogen Cycling

Tanya A. Marshall, Daniel M. Sigman, Lisa M. Beal, Alan Foreman, Alfredo Martínez-García, Stéphane Blain, Ethan Campbell, François Fripiat, Robyn Granger, Eesaa Harris, Gerald H. Haug, Dario Marconi, Sergey Oleynik, Patrick A. Rafter, Raymond Roman, Kolisa Sinyanya, Sandi M. Smart, Sarah E. Fawcett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The greater Agulhas Current region is an important component of the climate system, yet its influence on carbon and nutrient cycling is poorly understood. Here, we use nitrate isotopes (δ15N, δ18O, Δ(15–18) = δ15N–δ18O) to trace regional water mass circulation and investigate nitrogen cycling in the Agulhas Current and adjacent recirculating waters. The deep and intermediate waters record processes occurring remotely, including partial nitrate assimilation in the Southern Ocean and denitrification in the Arabian Sea. In the thermocline and surface, tropically sourced waters are biogeochemically distinct from adjacent subtropically sourced waters, confirming inhibited lateral mixing across the current core. (Sub)tropical thermocline nitrate δ15N is lower (4.9–5.8‰) than the sub-thermocline source, Subantarctic Mode Water (6.9‰); we attribute this difference to local N2 fixation. Using a one-box model to simulate the newly fixed nitrate flux, we estimate a local N2 fixation rate of 7–25 Tg N.a−1, with the upper limit likely biased high. In the mixed layer, nitrate δ15N and δ18O rise in unison, indicating that phytoplankton nitrate assimilation dominates in surface waters, with nitrification restricted to deeper waters. Because nitrate assimilation and nitrification are vertically decoupled, the rate of nitrate assimilation plus N2 fixation can be used to approximate carbon export. Thermocline and mixed-layer nitrate Δ(15–18) is low, due to both N2 fixation and coupled partial nitrate assimilation and nitrification. Similarly low-Δ(15–18) nitrate in Agulhas rings indicates leakage of low-δ15N nitrogen into the South Atlantic, which should be recorded in the organic matter sinking to the seafloor, providing a potential tracer of past Agulhas leakage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2022JC019413
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Oceanography
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


  • Agulhas Current
  • N fixation
  • nitrate assimilation
  • nitrate isotope ratios
  • nitrification
  • southwest Indian Ocean


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