Large-scale distribution of Atlantic nitrogen fixation controlled by iron availability

C. Mark Moore*, Matthew M. Mills, Eric P. Achterberg, Richard J Geider, Julie Laroche, Mike I. Lucas, Elaine L. McDonagh, Xi Pan, Alex J. Poulton, Micha J A Rijkenberg, David J. Suggett, Simon J. Ussher, E Malcolm S Woodward

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

354 Citations (Scopus)


Oceanic fixed-nitrogen concentrations are controlled by the balance between nitrogen fixation and denitrification. A number of factors, including iron limitation, can restrict nitrogen fixation, introducing the potential for decoupling of nitrogen inputs and losses. Such decoupling could significantly affect the oceanic fixed-nitrogen inventory and consequently the biological component of ocean carbon storage and hence air-sea partitioning of carbon dioxide. However, the extent to which nutrients limit nitrogen fixation in the global ocean is uncertain. Here, we examined rates of nitrogen fixation and nutrient concentrations in the surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean along a north-south 10,000 km transect during October and November 2005. We show that rates of nitrogen fixation were markedly higher in the North Atlantic compared with the South Atlantic Ocean. Across the two basins, nitrogen fixation was positively correlated with dissolved iron and negatively correlated with dissolved phosphorus concentrations. We conclude that inter-basin differences in nitrogen fixation are controlled by iron supply rather than phosphorus availability. Analysis of the nutrient content of deep waters suggests that the fixed nitrogen enters North Atlantic Deep Water. Our study thus supports the suggestion that iron significantly influences nitrogen fixation, and that subsequent interactions with ocean circulation patterns contribute to the decoupling of nitrogen fixation and loss.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)867-871
Number of pages5
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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