Vertical decoupling of nitrate assimilation and nitrification in the Sargasso Sea

Sarah E. Fawcett, Bess B. Ward, Michael W. Lomas, Daniel M. Sigman

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36 Scopus citations


The fraction of phytoplankton growth that leads to the rain of organic carbon out of the sunlit surface ocean ("export production") is central to the ocean's sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Nitrate assimilation has long been taken as a measure of export production; however, this has recently been questioned by suggestions that much of the nitrate in the sunlit layer (the "euphotic zone") originates from biological nitrogen (N) already in surface waters. This view has been supported by recent observations of euphotic zone nitrate elevated in δ18O relative to its δ15N, taken as indicative of nitrification (the oxidation of recycled ammonium to nitrite and then nitrate). To evaluate the potential importance of nitrification in the Sargasso Sea euphotic zone, we measured the δ15N and δ18O of seawater nitrate for samples with ≥0.2μM nitrate collected on 18 cruises in the Sargasso Sea, and here we present the first large data set to correct for the low but often measurable concentrations of nitrite. Regardless of season, nitrate (i.e., nitrate-only rather than nitrate+nitrite as is commonly reported) δ15N and δ18O increase in unison from below the base of the euphotic zone toward the surface. This pattern derives from nitrate assimilation by phytoplankton, implying that nitrification is much slower than the upward transport of nitrate into the lower Sargasso Sea euphotic zone. In the twilight zone below the euphotic zone, we observe a rise in nitrate δ18O (relative to deeper waters) that is not accompanied by a rise in δ15N, suggesting nitrification co-occurring with nitrate assimilation. Nitrification, therefore, does not appear to occur in euphotic zone waters overlapping with nitrate assimilation only in the ~150m-thick twilight zone layer below it. In net, the data argue for a simpler N cycle for the Sargasso Sea euphotic zone than has recently been suggested, with the rate of euphotic zone nitrate assimilation approximating that of organic carbon export to the deep ocean.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)64-72
Number of pages9
JournalDeep-Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


  • Dual isotopes of nitrate
  • Nitrate assimilation
  • Nitrification
  • Nitrite removal
  • Organic carbon export
  • Sargasso Sea


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