What proportion of riverine nutrients reaches the open ocean?

Jonathan Sharples, Jack J. Middelburg, Katja Fennel, Timothy D. Jickells

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105 Citations (Scopus)
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Globally, rivers deliver significant quantities of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) to the coastal ocean each year. Currently, there are no viable estimates of how much of this N and P escapes biogeochemical processing on the shelf to be exported to the open ocean; most models of N and P cycling assume that either all or none of the riverine nutrients reach the open ocean. We address this problem by using a simple mechanistic model of how a low-salinity plume behaves outside an estuary mouth. The model results in a global map of riverine water residence times on the shelf, typically a few weeks at low latitudes and up to a year at higher latitudes, which agrees well with observations. We combine the map of plume residence times on the shelf with empirical relationships that link residence time to the proportions of dissolved inorganic N (DIN) and P (DIP) exported and use a database of riverine nutrient loads to estimate the global distribution of riverine DIN and DIP supplied to the open ocean. We estimate that 75% of DIN and 80% of DIP reaches the open ocean. Ignoring processing within estuaries yields annual totals of 17 Tg DIN and 1.2 Tg DIP reaching the open ocean. For DIN this supply is about 50% of that supplied via atmospheric deposition, with significant east-west contrasts across the main ocean basins. The main sources of uncertainty are exchange rates across the shelf break and the empirical relationships between nutrient processing and plume residence time.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39–58
Number of pages20
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number1
Early online date12 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017


  • rivers
  • ocean
  • nutrients
  • nitrogen
  • phosphorus

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