Hydrothermal systems are a sink for dissolved black carbon in the deep ocean

Jutta Niggemann1, Jeffrey Alistair Hawkes1,2, Pamela E. Rossel1,3, Aron Stubbins4 and Thorsten Dittmar1, (1)University of Oldenburg, Research Group for Marine Geochemistry (ICBM-MPI Bridging Group), Oldenburg, Germany, (2)Uppsala University, Analytical Chemistry, Chemistry-BMC, Uppsala, Sweden, (3)Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), HGF-MPG Group for Deep Sea Ecology and Technology, Bremerhaven, Germany, (4)Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, University of Georgia, Savannah, GA, United States
Exposure to heat during fires on land or geothermal processes in Earth’s crust induces modifications in the molecular structure of organic matter. The products of this thermogenesis are collectively termed black carbon. Dissolved black carbon (DBC) is a significant component of the oceanic dissolved organic carbon (DOC) pool. In the deep ocean, DBC accounts for 2% of DOC and has an apparent radiocarbon age of 18,000 years. Thus, DBC is much older than the bulk DOC pool, suggesting that DBC is highly refractory. Recently, it has been shown that recalcitrant deep-ocean DOC is efficiently removed during hydrothermal circulation. Here, we hypothesize that hydrothermal circulation is also a net sink for deep ocean DBC. We analyzed DBC in samples collected at different vent sites in the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans. DBC was quantified in solid-phase extracts as benzenepolycarboxylic acids (BPCAs) following nitric acid digestion. Concentrations of DBC were much lower in hydrothermal fluids than in surrounding deep ocean seawater, confirming that hydrothermal circulation acts as a net sink for oceanic DBC. The relative contribution of DBC to bulk DOC did not change during hydrothermal circulation, indicating that DBC is removed at similar rates as bulk DOC. The ratio of the oxidation products benzenehexacarboxylic acid (B6CA) to benzenepentacarboxylic acid (B5CA) was significantly higher in hydrothermally altered samples compared to ratios typically found in the deep ocean, reflecting a higher degree of condensation of DBC molecules after hydrothermal circulation. Our study identified hydrothermal circulation as a quantitatively important sink for refractory DBC in the deep ocean. In contrast to photodegradation of DBC at the sea surface, which is more efficient for more condensed DBC, i.e. decreasing the B6CA/B5CA ratio, hydrothermal processing increases the B6CA/B5CA ratio, introducing a characteristic hydrothermal DBC signature.