The Role of Particle Size, Ballast, Temperature, and Oxygen in the Sinking Flux to the Deep Sea

Jacob A. Cram, Thomas Weber, Shirley W. Leung, Andrew M.P. McDonnell, Jun Hong Liang, Curtis Deutsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


The “transfer efficiency” of organic particles from the surface to depth is a critical determinant of ocean carbon sequestration. Recently, direct observations and geochemical analyses have revealed a systematic geographical pattern of transfer efficiency, which is highest in high latitude regions and lowest in the subtropical gyres. We evaluate the possible causes of this pattern using a mechanistic model of sinking particle dynamics. The model represents the size distribution of particles, the effects of mineral ballast, seawater temperature (which influences both particle settling velocity and microbial metabolic rates), and O2. Parameters are optimized within reasonable ranges to best match the observational constraints. Our model shows that no single factor can explain the observed pattern of transfer efficiency, but the biological effect of temperature on remineralization rate and particle size effects together can reproduce most of the regional variability with both factors contributing to low transfer efficiency in the subtropical gyres and high transfer efficiency in high latitudes. Particle density from mineral ballast has a similar directional effect to temperature and size but plays a substantially smaller role in our optimum solution, due to the opposing patterns of silicate and calcium carbonate ballasting. Oxygen effects modestly improved model fit by depressing remineralization rates and thus increasing transfer efficiency in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Our model implies that climate-driven changes to upper ocean temperature and associated changes in surface plankton size distribution would reduce the carbon sequestration efficiency in a warmer ocean.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)858-876
Number of pages19
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • ballast
  • biological pump
  • export flux
  • marine snow
  • remineralization


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