Global Biogeochemical Cycles

Localized refractory dissolved organic carbon sinks in the deep ocean


  • Dennis A. Hansell,

    Corresponding author
    1. Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Miami, Florida, USA
    • Corresponding author: D. A. Hansell, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Cswy., Miami, FL 33149, USA. (

    Search for more papers by this author
  • Craig A. Carlson

    1. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, USA
    Search for more papers by this author


[1] The global ocean holds one of Earth's major carbon reservoirs as dissolved organic matter (662 ± 32 PgC). Most of this material (>95%) is termed refractory dissolved organic carbon (RDOC) as Williams and Druffel (1987) found it to be old relative to the circulation time of the ocean. While RDOC within the modern ocean is thus perceived as vast and only slowly renewed, its mobilization has been implicated by Sexton et al. (2011) to explain Earth's transient warming events (i.e., hyperthermals) of the Paleocene and Eocene epochs (65–34 million years ago). Assessing this proposed function of RDOC as a rapidly (~5–10 kyr) exchangeable carbon reservoir is presently limited by insufficient knowledge of the responsible processes. Here we investigate the dynamics of RDOC in the deep Pacific Ocean, previously characterized by concentration gradients thought to be established by slow but systematic RDOC removal with circulation and aging of the water masses. We demonstrate that RDOC is instead conserved during much of its circulation, but that there exist localized sinks in the deep, far North Pacific and at mid depth in the subtropical South Pacific. Water mass mixing into these sink regions creates the observed RDOC gradients. Together, the Pacific sinks remove 7–29% of the 43 Tg RDOC added to the deep global ocean each year with overturning circulation, and point to an important but still unidentified control on the RDOC inventory of deep marine systems.