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Nature. 2000 Sep 21;407(6802):367-70.

Increased dissolved oxygen in Pacific intermediate waters due to lower rates of carbon oxidation in sediments.

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Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles 90089, USA.


Concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the ocean seem to correlate well with climate instabilities over the past 100,000 years. For example, the concentration of dissolved oxygen in Pacific intermediate waters was considerably higher during Pleistocene glacial periods than it is today. This has been inferred from the presence of bioturbated sediments, implying that oxygen levels were sufficient for burrowing organisms to live. Today, basins in the northeastern Pacific Ocean are floored by laminated sediments implying lower oxygen levels, which may be explained by reduced ventilation. Here we report a recent return to bioturbated sediments in the northeastern Pacific Ocean since the late 1970s. From the carbon isotope composition of benthic foraminifers living in the sediment, we infer a twofold decrease in the carbon oxidation rate occurring within sediments, equivalent to an increase in dissolved oxygen concentration of 15-20 micromoles per litre. These changes, at the edges of the Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Alfonso basins, are coincident with a change in North Pacific climate which has reduced upwelling by 20-30% and increased sea surface temperatures by 1.5-3 degrees C. This suggests that climate effects on surface productivity, reducing the supply organic matter to sediments, may have had a greater effect on benthic oxygen levels than changes in ocean circulation patterns.

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