The temperature-ballast hypothesis explains carbon export efficiency observations in the Southern Ocean



Carbon export from the Southern Ocean exerts a strong control on the ocean carbon sink, yet recent observations from the region demonstrate poorly understood relationships in which carbon export efficiency is weakly related to temperature. These observations conflict with traditional theory where export efficiency increases in colder waters. A recently proposed “temperature-ballast hypothesis” suggests an explanatory mechanism where the effect of temperature-dependent respiration is masked by variation in particle-ballast as upwelling waters move northward from Antarctica. We use observations and statistical models to test this mechanism and find positive support for the hypothesized temperature-ballast interactions. Best fitting models indicate a significant relation between export efficiency and silica-ballast while simultaneously revealing the expected inverse effect of temperature once ballast is accounted for. These findings reconcile model predictions, metabolic theory, and carbon export observations in the Southern Ocean and have consequences for how the ocean carbon sink responds to climate change.