Eventually the fixed nitrogen is returned to its gaseous state, a process called denitrification. Scientists have known for several decades that denitrification occurs in the deep, low-oxygen waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
If the Atlantic was the site of a lot of nitrogen fixation, that would have put the two processes half a world away from each other. Scientists had estimated that, at those distances, it could take 1,000 years to re-balance the ocean's nitrogen cycle if large-scale changes were to occur in either nitrogen fixation or denitrification ?if climate change altered ocean temperatures and the rates of the two processes, for instance.
The new findings show the processes are happening within a few hundred miles of each other so the balance could be reached within a decade, the authors estimate. Deutsch compares the old assumption to a house where the thermostat is many rooms away from a window that has swung open, letting in cold air. The house could get quite chilly before the draft reaches the thermostat and the furnace turns on. But if the thermostat is in the same room as the window, the furnace will turn on and even out the temperature much faster.
In his research Deutsch used a novel analysis of surface nutrients in the world's oceans that relied on several decades of existing large-scale data on nitrogen-to-phosphorous ratios, phosphorous also playing a major role in primary production. His work has been supported by a NASA Earth System Science Fellowship and the UW Program on Climate Change.
"There has been a great deal of controversy in the literature as to whether fixed nitrogen in the ocean remains constant with time or fluctuates widely," says Jorge Sarmiento, professor of geosciences at Princeton University and one of the co-authors. "This study is a major
Source:University of Washington