Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Researchers Document Acceleration of Ocean Denitrification During Deglaciation

June 3, 2013

As ice sheets melted during the deglaciation of the last ice age and global oceans warmed, oceanic oxygen levels decreased and "denitrification" accelerated by 30 to 120 percent, a new international study shows, creating oxygen-poor marine regions and throwing the oceanic nitrogen cycle off balance.

By the end of the deglaciation, however, the oceans had adjusted to their new warmer state and the nitrogen cycle had stabilized – though it took several millennia. Recent increases in global warming, thought to be caused by human activities, are raising concerns that denitrification may adversely affect marine environments over the next few hundred years, with potentially significant effects on ocean food webs.

Results of the study have been published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience. It was supported by the National Science Foundation.

"The warming that occurred during deglaciation some 20,000 to 10,000 years ago led to a reduction of oxygen gas dissolved in sea water and more denitrification, or removal of nitrogen nutrients from the ocean," explained Andreas Schmittner, an Oregon State University oceanographer and author on the Nature Geoscience paper. "Since nitrogen nutrients are needed by algae to grow, this affects phytoplankton growth and productivity, and may also affect atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations."

"This study shows just what happened in the past, and suggests that decreases in oceanic oxygen that will likely take place under future global warming scenarios could mean more denitrification and fewer nutrients available for phytoplankton," Schmittner added.

In their study, the scientists analyzed more than 2,300 seafloor core samples, and created 76 time series of nitrogen isotopes in those sediments spanning the past 30,000 years. They discovered that during the last glacial maximum, the Earth's nitrogen cycle was at a near steady state. In other words, the amount of nitrogen nutrients added to the oceans – known as nitrogen fixation – was sufficient to compensate for the amount lost by denitrification.

A lack of nitrogen can essentially starve a marine ecosystem by not providing enough nutrients. Conversely, too much nitrogen can create an excess of plant growth that eventually decays and uses up the oxygen dissolved in sea water, suffocating fish and other marine organisms.

Following the period of enhanced denitrification and nitrogen loss during deglaciation, the world's oceans slowly moved back toward a state of near stabilization. But there are signs that recent rates of global warming may be pushing the nitrogen cycle out of balance.

"Measurements show that oxygen is already decreasing in the ocean," Schmittner said "The changes we saw during deglaciation of the last ice age happened over thousands of years. But current warming trends are happening at a much faster rate than in the past, which almost certainly will cause oceanic changes to occur more rapidly.

"It still may take decades, even centuries to unfold," he added.

Schmittner and Christopher Somes, a former graduate student in the OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, developed a model of nitrogen isotope cycling in the ocean, and compared that with the nitrogen measurements from the seafloor sediments. Their sensitivity experiments with the model helped to interpret the complex patterns seen in the observations.


Holgate glacier calving. Glaciers are regions of freshwater ice on land. In response to climate fluctuations, glaciers grow and shrink in length, width, and depth. (Photo: U.S. National Parks Service)


Phytoplankton—microscopic plants floating in the upper layers of the ocean—are the foundation of most of the ocean's biological community. (Source: NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center MESA Project)


The greening of the northern hemisphere's land and ocean as the sun moves north of the equator can be seen in these SeaWiFS images of the global biosphere. SeaWiFS-derived chlorophyll-a concentrations in the ocean show the development of the spring bloom in the North Atlantic ocean. In the oceans, regions with the lowest chlorophyll-a concentrations are shown in purple and deep blue while the lighter blues, greens, yellows and reds represent increasing phytoplankton abundance. Being able to monitor the earth's biological response to the changing environment is critical to our ability to predict how the earth's ability to support life may change in the future. (Source: NASA: Goddard Space Flight Center)

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