Appraisal of sedimentary alkenones for the quantitative reconstruction of phytoplankton biomass

Maria Raja*, Antoni Rosell-Melé

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Marine primary productivity (PP) is the driving factor in the global marine carbon cycle. Its reconstruction in past climates relies on biogeochemical proxies that are not considered to provide an unequivocal signal. These are often based on the water column flux of biogenic components to sediments (organic carbon, biogenic opal, biomarkers), although other factors than productivity are posited to control the sedimentary contents of the components, and their flux is related to the fraction of export production buried in sediments. Moreover, most flux proxies have not been globally appraised. Here, we assess a proxy to quantify past phytoplankton biomass by correlating the concentration of C37 alkenones in a global suite of core-top sediments with sea surface chlorophyll-a (SSchla) estimates over the last 20 y. SSchla is the central metric to calculate phytoplankton biomass and is directly related to PP. We show that the global spatial distribution of sedimentary alkenones is primarily correlated to SSchla rather than diagenetic factors such as the oxygen concentration in bottom waters, which challenges previous assumptions on the role of preservation on driving concentrations of sedimentary organic compounds. Moreover, our results suggest that the rate of global carbon export to sediments is not regionally constrained, and that alkenones producers play a dominant role in the global export of carbon buried in the seafloor. This study shows the potential of using sedimentary alkenones to estimate past phytoplankton biomass, which in turn can be used to infer past PP in the global ocean.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2014787118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2021


  • Global export and burial
  • Marine sediments
  • Primary productivity
  • Proxy
  • Remote sensing


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