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Researchers document acceleration of ocean denitrification during deglaciation

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Posted June 3, 2013

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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.

Read more at: Phys.org

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