Carbon and nutrient cycles

The ocean plays a dominant role in the Earth’s carbon and nutrient cycles.  These cycles are intrinsically linked together and sustain life in the ocean and form a key part of our climate system.

Our long and internationally recognized track record in biogeochemical cycling aims to quantify key processes in the cycling of life sustaining elements in the upper ocean and coastal seas. We use an interdisciplinary approach to study the cycling of carbon and nutrients at interface of biology, chemistry and physics from the sea-surface to the sea-floor. We investigate processes that transform Carbon and nutrients as these are transported from land to sea and across the sea-air interface.

Recent research has concentrated on the pathways, reactions and transformations of nitrogen, carbon and sulphur through the marine biogeochemical system. Particular highlights have been: quantifying ocean acidification across the Atlantic Ocean over the last 20 years; quantifying the impacts of ocean acidification on biogeochemical cycles; quantifying the impacts of multiple stressors upon micro-organisms in the surface ocean, and investigating the impact of variable ratios of micro-nutrients (e.g. iron and zinc) to macro-nutrients (e.g. nitrate and phosphate) on ocean productivity.

We are also investigating the cycling of organic compounds, and our research in this area has focused on the large and complex dissolved organic fraction within seawater and its role in providing microbes with energy, nitrogen and sulphur. Until recently our understanding of the sources, sinks and reaction pathways of ubiquitous organic compounds, such as methanol, osmolytes containing nitrogen, acetone and acetaldehyde was very limited. However, research campaigns studying seasonal cycles and ocean basin variability have allowed us to start unravelling their significance in meeting organic carbon requirements and supporting microbial metabolic processes.

Making a difference

A thorough understanding of carbon and nutrient cycles is essential to enable us to understand how the ocean functions and may respond to future environmental and climate change and will help to improve predictive tools for policy makers and other stakeholders.



Processes Influencing Carbon Cycling: Observations of the Lower limb of the Antarctic Overturning (PICCOLO)

Contact: Dr Tom Bell

The vast, remote seas which surround the continent of Antarctica are collectively known as the Southern Ocean. This region with its severe...


REmineralisation, OPTIcs and Marine partIcle siZE (REOPTIMIZE)

Contact: Dr Giorgio Dall'Olmo

In the REOPTIMIZE project,  the relationships between the size of marine particles and how they interact with light will be examined across...


N-OSmolytes Across the Surface Southern Ocean: Environmental Drivers and Bioinformatics

Contact: Dr Ruth Airs

Marine organisms accumulate osmolytes in response to stress and release them when environmental conditions change due to viral attack, grazing or...

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Other recent news articles


New modelling tool to enhance global understanding

Open access model allows scientists to predict climate and other anthropogenically influenced environmental changes.


Zooplankton unlock a limiting nutrient for ocean productivity

Scientists have discovered that Antarctic krill – a tiny shrimp-like crustacean – plays a key role in fertilising the Southern Ocean with iron, which stimulates the growth of phytoplankton, the microscopic plants at the base of the marine food web. 


Seabed carbon stores threatened by climate change and human activity

New research suggests that some marine organisms are unable to cope with increasing carbon dioxide and low oxygen events simultaneously, providing fresh understanding of the impacts of multiple stressors on these fragile and poorly understood ecosystems.

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Selected key publications

Dall'Olmo, G; Dingle, J; Polimene, L, Brewin, RJW; Claustre, H. 2016. Substantial energy input to the mesopelagic ecosystem from the seasonal mixed-layer pump. Nature Geoscience, 9(11), 820-823.

Kitidis, V; Brown, I; Hardman-Mountford, N; Lefevre, N. 2017. Surface ocean carbon dioxide during the Atlantic Meridional Transect (1995-2013); evidence of ocean acidification. Progress in Oceanography, doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2016.1008.1005.

Kitidis, V; Tait, K; Nunes, J; Brown, I; Woodward, EMS; Harris, C; Sabadel, AJM;. Sivyer, DB; Silburn, B; Kroger, S. 2017. Seasonal benthic nitrogen cycling in a temperate shelf sea: the Celtic Sea. Biogeochemistry, 135(1-2), 103-119.

Related recent publications

  1. Humphreys, MP; Artioli, Y; Bakker, DCE; Hartman, SE; León, P; Wakelin, S; Walsham, P; Williamson, P. 2020 Air–sea CO2 exchange and ocean acidification in UK seas and adjacent waters. UK, MCCIP Science Review 2020, 1pp. (UNSPECIFIED)
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  2. Ng, HC; Cassarino, L; Pickering, RA; Woodward, EMS; Hammond, SJ; Hendry, KR. 2019 Sediment efflux of silicon on the Greenland margin and implications for the marine silicon cycle. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 529. 115877.
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  3. Roemmich, D; Alford, MH; Claustre, H; Johnson, K; King, B; Moum, J; Oke, P; Owens, WB; Pouliquen, S; Purkey, S; Scanderbeg, M; Suga, T; Wijffels, S; Zilberman, N; Bakker, D; Baringer, M; Belbeoch, M; Bittig, HC; Boss, E; Calil, P; Carse, F; Carval, T; Chai, F; Conchubhair, DÓ; d’Ortenzio, F; Dall’Olmo, G; Desbruyeres, D; Fennel, K; Fer, I; Ferrari, R; Forget, G; Freeland, H; Fujiki, T; Gehlen, M; Greenan, B; Hallberg, R; Hibiya, T; Hosoda, S; Jayne, S; Jochum, M; Johnson, GC; Kang, K; Kolodziejczyk, N; Körtzinger, A; Traon, PL; Lenn, YD; Maze, G; Mork, KA; Morris, T; Nagai, T; Nash, J; Garabato, AN; Olsen, A; Pattabhi, RR; Prakash, S; Riser, S; Schmechtig, C; Schmid, C; Shroyer, E; Sterl, A; Sutton, P; Talley, L; Tanhua, T; Thierry, V; Thomalla, S; Toole, J; Troisi, A; Trull, TW; Turton, J; Velez-Belchi, PJ; Walczowski, W; Wang, H; Wanninkhof, R; Waterhouse, AF; Waterman, S; Watson, A; Wilson, C; Wong, APS; Xu, J; Yasuda, I. 2019 On the Future of Argo: A Global, Full-Depth, Multi-Disciplinary Array. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6.
    View publication

  4. Whisgott, JU; Sharples, J; Hopkins, JE; Woodward, EMS; Hull, T; Greenwood, N; Sivyer, DB. 2019 Observations of vertical mixing in autumn and its effect on the autumn phytoplankton bloom. Progress in Oceanography.
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  5. Vincent, AG; Pascal, RW; Beaton, AD; Walk, J; Hopkins, JE; Woodward, EMS; Mowlem, M; Lohan, MC. 2018 Nitrate drawdown during a shelf sea spring bloom revealed using a novel microfluidic in situ chemical sensor deployed within an autonomous underwater glider. Marine Chemistry, 205. 29-36.
    View publication

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