The depth of oxygen penetration into marine sediments differs considerably from one region to another. In areas with high rates of microbial respiration, O2 penetrates only millimetres to centimetres into the sediments, but active anaerobic microbial communities are present in sediments hundreds of metres or more below the sea floor. In areas with low sedimentary respiration, O2 penetrates much deeper but the depth to which microbial communities persist was previously unknown. The sediments underlying the South Pacific Gyre exhibit extremely low areal rates of respiration. Here we show that, in this region, microbial cells and aerobic respiration persist through the entire sediment sequence to depths of at least 75 metres below sea floor. Based on the Redfield stoichiometry of dissolved O2 and nitrate, we suggest that net aerobic respiration in these sediments is coupled to oxidation of marine organic matter. We identify a relationship of O2 penetration depth to sedimentation rate and sediment thickness. Extrapolating this relationship, we suggest that oxygen and aerobic communities may occur throughout the entire sediment sequence in 15–44% of the Pacific and 9–37% of the global sea floor. Subduction of the sediment and basalt from these regions is a source of oxidized material to the mantle.
The western flank of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a region underlying the oligotrophic waters of the central Atlantic. The seafloor along portions of this ridge is characterized by sediment-filled depressions, which are surrounded by steep basaltic outcrops. We present pore fluid and sediment solid-phase chemical data from fourteen gravity cores from “North Pond”, a sediment pond where previous drilling work indicated directed flow of seawater within the basement. Sediment lithology is broadly characterized as a nannofossil pelagic sediment containing varying amounts of clay, foraminifers, and Mn-micronodules and typically contains less than 0.3% organic carbon and ~ 70% calcium carbonate. Consistent with its location within an oligotrophic ocean gyre, oxygen and nitrate penetrated deeply into the sediment package. However there is significant spatial variability in the pore fluid nitrate and oxygen profiles, with oxygen generally lower and nitrate higher toward the center of the basin as compared to the edges. In addition, oxygen increased with sediment depth at a number of sites toward the edges of the pond, where sediment cover was thinnest. We interpret these oxygen distributions to indicate that there is upward diffusion of dissolved oxygen from the underlying basaltic basement fluid and the sediment package, and this process appears to be regionally pervasive. Pore fluid molybdenum generally decreases with depth and exhibits spatial variability similar to dissolved oxygen and nitrate. Molybdenum is likely being taken up at depth via adsorption onto manganese oxides, as these sediments are rich in manganese (~ 300–3000 ppm Mn) and molybdenum (~ 2–14 ppm Mo). The strong geographical variations in pore fluid chemistry coupled with the co-variation between molybdenum and oxygen, two species that we would not necessarily expect to be coupled, suggest that diffusion of dissolved constituents into the sediment package from below plays an important role in determining the chemistry of the overlying sediment.