Variations in Sedimentary Organic δ13C as a Proxy for Past Changes in Ocean and Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations

  • Greg H. Rau
Part of the NATO ASI Series book series (volume 17)


Theory, laboratory studies, and ocean observations indicate that the δ13C of marine plankton biomass and sedimentary remains thereof can be used as a proxy for ambient molecular CO2 concentration, [CO2(aq)] in ocean surface waters. A compilation of in situ ocean data suggests that about 89% of the global δ13Corg variation within bulk plankton or seston can be explained by a simple negative linear response to ambient [CO2(aq)] with the slope of the best-fit line = -0.6 ‰ µM-1. With this model the standard error of the estimate of surface ocean [CO2(aq)] is ±2.0 µM when δ13Corg is specified. This residual variability may be largely due to effects on plankton δ13Corg imparted by changes in phytoplankton CO2 demand that are independent of [CO2(aq)]. Within this variability and within the current range of ocean [CO2(aq)] there are slight differences between this model and various proposed nonlinear fits to observed global data. While an inverse relationship that can be influenced by both CO2 demand as well as concentration is theoretically expected, it does not provide an improved fit to observations over the negative linear model. When applied to the sedimentary δ13Corg record, the latter model predicts that the approximate 80 µatms increase in atmospheric pCO2 during the last glacial-interglacial transition (as documented by ice core analyses) should have resulted in a 1–2 ‰ decrease in plankton δ13C. Indeed, changes of this direction and magnitude are evident in most low-latitude Pleistocene/Holocene sediment core profiles of δ13Corg thus far reported. However, some geographic and temporal differences in past plankton isotopic response are present and expected due to i) regional non-equilibrium between ocean and atmospheric [CO2], and ii) changes in phytoplankton CO2 demand.


Carbon Isotope Carbon Isotope Fractionation Surface Ocean Temperature Marine Organic Matter pC02 Variation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Greg H. Rau
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Marine SciencesUniversity of California, Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA

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