Nitrogen isotope evidence for expanded ocean suboxia in the early Cenozoic

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  26 Apr 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6438, pp. 386-389
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5784

Circulation more than temperature

Changes in continental configuration and sea level affected the ocean's oxygen levels and the rate of denitrification between 70 and 30 million years ago. That finding by Kast et al. shows a fundamental difference from the modern ocean, in which the extent of suboxia is controlled primarily by global temperature. Changes in the nitrogen isotopic composition of marine organic matter correlate with the collision of India and Asia and the circulation changes that occurred as a result. Later, isotopic composition changed further in response to a fall in sea level as global cooling caused ice sheets to grow.

Science, this issue p. 386


The million-year variability of the marine nitrogen cycle is poorly understood. Before 57 million years (Ma) ago, the 15N/14N ratio (δ15N) of foraminifera shell-bound organic matter from three sediment cores was high, indicating expanded water column suboxia and denitrification. Between 57 and 50 Ma ago, δ15N declined by 13 to 16 per mil in the North Pacific and by 3 to 8 per mil in the Atlantic. The decline preceded global cooling and appears to have coincided with the early stages of the Asia-India collision. Warm, salty intermediate-depth water forming along the Tethys Sea margins may have caused the expanded suboxia, ending with the collision. From 50 to 35 Ma ago, δ15N was lower than modern values, suggesting widespread sedimentary denitrification on broad continental shelves. δ15N rose at 35 Ma ago, as ice sheets grew, sea level fell, and continental shelves narrowed.

View Full Text

Stay Connected to Science