Aquatic Geochemistry

, Volume 20, Issue 2–3, pp 343–362 | Cite as

The Sensitivity of the Phanerozoic Inorganic Carbon System to the Onset of Pelagic Sedimentation

  • Rolf S. ArvidsonEmail author
  • Fred T. Mackenzie
  • Robert A. Berner
Original Paper


The onset of pelagic sedimentation attending the radiation of pelagic calcifiers during the Mesozoic was an important divide in Earth history, shifting the locus of significant carbonate sedimentation from the shallow shelf environments of the Paleozoic to the deep sea. This shift would have impacted the CO2 cycle, given that decarbonation of subducted pelagic carbonate is an important return flux of CO2 to the atmosphere. Coupled with the fact that the mean residence time of continental platform and basin sedimentary carbonate exceeds that of the oceanic crust, it thus becomes unclear whether carbon cycling would have operated on a substantially different footing prior to the pelagic transition. Here, we examine this uncertainty with sensitivity analyses of the timing of this transition using a coupled model of the Phanerozoic atmosphere, ocean, and shallow lithosphere. For purposes of comparison, we establish an age of 250 Ma (i.e., after the Permo-Triassic extinctions) as the earliest opportunity for deposition of extensive biogenic pelagic carbonate on the deep seafloor, an age that predates known occurrences of pelagic calcifiers (and intact seafloor). Although an approximate boundary, we do show that attempts to shift this datum either significantly earlier or later in time produce model results that are inconsistent with observed trends in the mass–age distribution of the rock record and with accepted trends in seawater composition as constrained by proxy data. Significantly, we also conclude that regardless of the timing of the onset of biogenic pelagic carbonate sedimentation, a carbon sink involving seawater-derived dissolved inorganic carbon played a critical role in carbon cycling, particularly in the Paleozoic. This CaCO3 sink may have been wholly abiogenic, involving calcium derived either directly from seawater (thus manifest as a direct seafloor deposit), or alternatively from basalt–seawater reactions (represented by precipitation of CaCO3 in veins and fissures within the basalt). Despite the uncertainty in the source and magnitude of this abiogenic CaCO3 flux, it is likely a basic and permanent feature of global carbon cycling. Subduction of this CaCO3 would have acted as a basic return circuit for atmospheric CO2 even in the absence of biogenically derived pelagic carbonate sedimentation. Lastly, model calculations of the ratio of dissolved calcium to carbonate ion (Ca2+/CO3 2−) show this quantity underwent significant secular evolution over the Phanerozoic. As there is increasing recognition of this ratio’s role in CaCO3 growth and dissolution reactions, this evolution, together with progressive increases in nutrient availability and saturation state, may have created a tipping point ultimately conducive to the appearance of pelagic calcifiers in the Mesozoic.


Pelagic sedimentation Phanerozoic carbon system Urey cycle 



This paper was written as a tribute to the memory of Owen Bricker and his contributions in the early years of his scientific career to the fields of manganese and carbonate geochemistry and later and significantly to our knowledge of geochemical mass balances in aquatic systems. FTM recalls fondly his graduate student days with Owen at Lehigh University and FTM and RAB remember with much delight the days spent with Owen in the laboratory, geochemistry classes, and on the “playing fields” of the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (now the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences). RSA recalls as a student reading Owen’s publications, including his classic volume on cements, and gaining much insight into the field of carbonate geochemistry from them. Although there was no direct financial support of this work from funding agencies, the project required resources and we thank the U.S. National Science Foundation for the funding of our research efforts over these many years.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rolf S. Arvidson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Fred T. Mackenzie
    • 2
  • Robert A. Berner
    • 3
  1. 1.MARUM/Geowissenschaften FB5, Klagenfurter StraßeUniversität BremenBremenGermany
  2. 2.Department of OceanographySOEST/University of HawaiiHonoluluUSA
  3. 3.Department of Geology and GeophysicsYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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