Variable particle size distributions reduce the sensitivity of global export flux to climate change

Leung, Shirley W.; Weber, Thomas; Cram, Jacob A.; Deutsch, Curtis

Recent earth system models predict a 10 %–20 % decrease in particulate organic carbon export from the surface ocean by the end of the 21st century due to global climate change. This decline is mainly caused by increased stratification of the upper ocean, resulting in reduced shallow subsurface nutrient concentrations and a slower supply of nutrients to the surface euphotic zone in low latitudes. These predictions, however, do not typically account for associated changes in remineralization depths driven by sinking-particle size. Here we combine satellite-derived export and particle size maps with a simple 3-D global biogeochemical model that resolves dynamic particle size distributions to investigate how shifts in particle size may buffer or amplify predicted changes in surface nutrient supply and therefore export production. We show that higher export rates are empirically correlated with larger sinking particles and presumably larger phytoplankton, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions. Incorporating these empirical relationships into our global model shows that as circulation slows, a decrease in export is associated with a shift towards smaller particles, which sink more slowly and are thus remineralized shallower. This shift towards shallower remineralization in turn leads to greater recycling of nutrients in the upper water column and thus faster nutrient recirculation into the euphotic zone. The end result is a boost in productivity and export that counteracts the initial circulation-driven decreases. This negative feedback mechanism (termed the particle-size–remineralization feedback) slows export decline over the next century by inline-formula∼ 14 % globally (from inline-formula−0.29 to inline-formula−0.25 inline-formulaGtC yr−1) and by inline-formula∼ 20 % in the tropical and subtropical oceans, where export decreases are currently predicted to be greatest. Our findings suggest that to more accurately predict changes in biological pump strength under a warming climate, earth system models should include dynamic particle-size-dependent remineralization depths.

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Leung, Shirley W. / Weber, Thomas / Cram, Jacob A. / et al: Variable particle size distributions reduce the sensitivity of global export flux to climate change. 2021. Copernicus Publications.

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