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Geobiology. 2016 May;14(3):207-19. doi: 10.1111/gbi.12176. Epub 2016 Feb 29.

The influence of the biological pump on ocean chemistry: implications for long-term trends in marine redox chemistry, the global carbon cycle, and marine animal ecosystems.

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Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Willamette University, Salem, OR, USA.
Department of Earth Sciences, University of California, Riverside, CA, USA.
School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.
Department of Geological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.


The net export of organic matter from the surface ocean and its respiration at depth create vertical gradients in nutrient and oxygen availability that play a primary role in structuring marine ecosystems. Changes in the properties of this 'biological pump' have been hypothesized to account for important shifts in marine ecosystem structure, including the Cambrian explosion. However, the influence of variation in the behavior of the biological pump on ocean biogeochemistry remains poorly quantified, preventing any detailed exploration of how changes in the biological pump over geological time may have shaped long-term shifts in ocean chemistry, biogeochemical cycling, and ecosystem structure. Here, we use a 3-dimensional Earth system model of intermediate complexity to quantitatively explore the effects of the biological pump on marine chemistry. We find that when respiration of sinking organic matter is efficient, due to slower sinking or higher respiration rates, anoxia tends to be more prevalent and to occur in shallower waters. Consequently, the Phanerozoic trend toward less bottom-water anoxia in continental shelf settings can potentially be explained by a change in the spatial dynamics of nutrient cycling rather than by any change in the ocean phosphate inventory. The model results further suggest that the Phanerozoic decline in the prevalence ocean anoxia is, in part, a consequence of the evolution of larger phytoplankton, many of which produce mineralized tests. We hypothesize that the Phanerozoic trend toward greater animal abundance and metabolic demand was driven more by increased oxygen concentrations in shelf environments than by greater food (nutrient) availability. In fact, a lower-than-modern ocean phosphate inventory in our closed system model is unable to account for the Paleozoic prevalence of bottom-water anoxia. Overall, these model simulations suggest that the changing spatial distribution of photosynthesis and respiration in the oceans has exerted a first-order control on Earth system evolution across Phanerozoic time.

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