Nitrogen fixation amplifies the ocean biogeochemical response to decadal timescale variations in mineral dust deposition


*Corresponding author. e-mail:


A global ocean biogeochemical model is used to quantify the sensitivity of marine biogeochemistry and air–sea CO2 exchange to variations in dust deposition over decadal timescales. Estimates of dust deposition generated under four climate states provide a large range in total deposition with spatially realistic patterns; transient ocean model experiments are conducted by applying a step-function change in deposition from a current climate control. Relative to current conditions, higher dust deposition increases diatom and export production, nitrogen fixation and oceanic net CO2 uptake from the atmosphere, while reduced dust deposition has the opposite effects. Over timescales less than a decade, dust modulation of marine productivity and export is dominated by direct effects in high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll regions, where iron is the primary limiting nutrient. On longer timescales, an indirect nitrogen fixation pathway has increased importance, significantly amplifying the ocean biogeochemical response. Because dust iron input decouples carbon cycling from subsurface macronutrient supply, the ratio of the change in net ocean CO2 uptake to change in export flux is large, 0.45–0.6. Decreasing dust deposition and reduced oceanic CO2 uptake over the next century could provide a positive feedback to global warming, distinct from feedbacks associated with changes in stratification and circulation.