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Publication Title

Global Biogeochemical Cycles








Phytoplankton productivity and export sequester climatically significant quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide as particulate organic carbon through a suite of processes termed the biological pump. Constraining how the biological pump operated in the past is important for understanding past atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and Earth's climate history. However, reconstructing the history of the biological pump requires proxies. Due to their intimate association with biological processes, several bioactive trace metals and their isotopes are potential proxies for past phytoplankton productivity, including iron, zinc, copper, cadmium, molybdenum, barium, nickel, chromium, and silver. Here, we review the oceanic distributions, driving processes, and depositional archives for these nine metals and their isotopes based on GEOTRACES-era datasets. We offer an assessment of the overall maturity of each isotope system to serve as a proxy for diagnosing aspects of past ocean productivity and identify priorities for future research. This assessment reveals that cadmium, barium, nickel, and chromium isotopes offer the most promise as tracers of paleoproductivity, whereas iron, zinc, copper, and molybdenum do not. Too little is known about silver to make a confident determination. Intriguingly, the trace metals that are least sensitive to productivity may be used to track other aspects of ocean chemistry, such as nutrient sources, particle scavenging, organic complexation, and ocean redox state. These complementary sensitivities suggest new opportunities for combining perspectives from multiple proxies that will ultimately enable painting a more complete picture of marine paleoproductivity, biogeochemical cycles, and Earth's climate history.


© 2021. The Authors.

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Data Availability

Article states: "The majority of the dissolved data were sourced from the GEOTRACES Intermediate Data Products in 2014 (Mawji et al., 2015) and 2017 (Schlitzer et al., 2018), and citations to the primary data sources are given in the caption for each figure. Data sources for Figure 1 are given below. Figure 1: Iron: Conway & John, 2014a (Atlantic); Conway & John, 2015a (Pacific); Abadie et al., 2017 (Southern). Zinc: Conway & John, 2014b (Atlantic); Conway & John, 2015a (Pacific); R. M. Wang et al., 2019 (Southern). Copper: Little et al., 2018 (Atlantic); Takano et al., 2017 (Pacific); Boye et al., 2012 (Southern). Cadmium: Conway and John, 2015b (Atlantic); Conway & John, 2015a (Pacific); Abouchami et al., 2014 (Southern). Molybdenum: Nakagawa et al., 2012 (all basins). Barium: Bates et al., 2017 (Atlantic); Geyman et al., 2019 (Pacific); Hsieh & Henderson, 2017 (Southern). Nickel: Archer et al., 2020 (Atlantic); Takano et al., 2017 (Pacific); R. M. Wang et al., 2019 (Southern). Chromium: Goring-Harford et al., 2018 (Atlantic); Moos & Boyle, 2019 (Pacific); Rickli et al., 2019 (Southern). Silver: Fischer et al., 2018 (Pacific); Boye et al., 2012 (Southern)."

Original Publication Citation

Horner, T. J., Little, S. H., Conway, T. M., Farmer, J. R., Hertzberg, J. E., Janssen, D. J., et al. (2021). Bioactive trace metals and their isotopes as paleoproductivity proxies: An assessment using GEOTRACES-era data. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 35(11), 1-86, Article e2020GB006814.


0000-0001-6437-5977 (Hertzberg)