Tropical Dominance of N2 Fixation in the North Atlantic Ocean

Dario Marconi, Daniel Mikhail Sigman, Karen L. Casciotti, Ethan C. Campbell, M. Alexandra Weigand, Sarah E. Fawcett, Angela N. Knapp, Patrick A. Rafter, Bettie Ward, Gerald H. Haug

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36 Scopus citations


To investigate the controls on N2 fixation and the role of the Atlantic in the global ocean's fixed nitrogen (N) budget, Atlantic N2 fixation is calculated by combining meridional nitrate fluxes across World Ocean Circulation Experiment sections with observed nitrate 15N/14N differences between northward and southward transported nitrate. N2 fixation inputs of 27.1 ± 4.3 Tg N/yr and 3.0 ± 0.5 Tg N/yr are estimated north of 11°S and 24°N, respectively. That is, ~90% of the N2 fixation in the Atlantic north of 11°S occurs south of 24°N in a region with upwelling that imports phosphorus (P) in excess of N relative to phytoplankton requirements. This suggests that, under the modern iron-rich conditions of the equatorial and North Atlantic, N2 fixation occurs predominantly in response to P-bearing, N-poor conditions. We estimate a N2 fixation rate of 30.5 ± 4.9 Tg N/yr north of 30°S, implying only 3 Tg N/yr between 30° and 11°S, despite evidence of P-bearing, N-poor surface waters in this region as well; this is consistent with iron limitation of N2 fixation in the South Atlantic. Since the ocean flows through the Atlantic surface in <2,500 years, similar to the residence time of oceanic fixed N, Atlantic N2 fixation can stabilize the N-to-P ratio of the global ocean. However, the calculated rate of Atlantic N2 fixation is a small fraction of global ocean estimates for either N2 fixation or fixed N loss. This suggests that, in the modern ocean, an approximate balance between N loss and N2 fixation is achieved within the combined Indian and Pacific basins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1608-1623
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • Atlantic
  • N fixation
  • excess P


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