The Importance of Subsurface Production for Carbon Export – Evidence from Past Oceans

Alan E S Kemp, University of Southampton, Southampton, SO14, United Kingdom
The maxim of the geological concept of uniformitarianism is “the present is the key to the past”, but in the context of our temporally and spatially minimal observational record of modern ocean biogeochemical processes, ancient ocean sediments may provide critical evidence of the key species involved in carbon flux. Specifically, laminated marine sediments that preserve the seasonal flux cycle represent “palaeo-sediment traps” that vastly expand our knowledge of the operations of the marine biological carbon pump. Several key subsurface-dwelling diatom taxa, hitherto thought to be biogeochemically insignificant, are dominant components of ancient marine sediments. For example, the sapropels and equivalent horizons that have accumulated in the Mediterranean over the past 5 million years, contain abundant rhizosolenid and hemiaulid diatoms. These deposits contain the highest concentrations of organic carbon and there is extensive evidence that this was produced by subsurface production in a deep chlorophyll maximum. The highly stratified conditions that led to this subsurface production and carbon flux are in contrast to prevailing views that have held upwelling systems as those with the highest potential for export in the global ocean. Similarly, studies of ancient “greenhouse” periods such as the Cretaceous, with highly stratified oceans and which are potential analogues for future climate change, show evidence for extensive subsurface production. Together with emerging evidence from stratified regions of the modern ocean, such as the subtropical gyres, insights from these ancient oceans suggest that a reappraisal is required of current views on key phytoplankton producers and their role the operation of the marine biological carbon pump.