Sedimentary biomarker distributions can record ocean productivity and community structure, but their interpretation must consider alteration during organic matter (OM) export and burial. Large changes in the water column redox state are known to impact on the preservation of biomarkers, but more subtle variation in sediment redox conditions, characteristic of major modern ocean basins, have been less thoroughly investigated. Here we evaluate changes in biomarker distributions during sinking and burial across a nearshore to offshore transect in the southwestern Cape Basin (South East Atlantic), which includes a range of sedimentary environments. Biomarker concentrations and distributions in suspended particulate matter from the upper water column were determined and compared with underlying sedimentary biomarker accumulation rates and distributions. Biomarker distributions were similar in surface and subsurface waters, indicating that the OM signature is exported from the ocean mixed layer with minimal alteration. We show that, while export production (100 m) is similar along this transect, 230Thxs-corrected biomarker accumulation rate varies by over an order of magnitude in sediments and is directly associated with sedimentary redox conditions, ranging from oxic to nitrogenous–ferruginous. Biomarker distributions were dominated by sterols in surface water, and by alkenones in underlying sediments, which we propose to be primarily the result of selective preservation. Notably, the difference in sediment O2 penetration depth was associated with relative biomarker preservation. Subtle variation in sedimentary redox conditions has a dramatic impact on the distribution of preserved biomarkers. We discuss mechanisms for preferential degradation of specific biomarkers within this setting.
Quantifying the rates of biogeochemical processes in marine sediments is essential for understanding global element cycles and climate change. Because organic matter degradation is the engine behind benthic dynamics, deciphering the impact that various forces have on this process is central to determining the evolution of the Earth system. Therefore, recent developments in the quantitative modeling of organic matter degradation in marine sediments are critically reviewed. The first part of the review synthesizes the main chemical, biological and physical factors that control organic matter degradation in sediments while the second part provides a general review of the mathematical formulations used to model these processes and the third part evaluates their application over different spatial and temporal scales. Key transport mechanisms in sedimentary environments are summarized and the mathematical formulation of the organic matter degradation rate law is described in detail. The roles of enzyme kinetics, bioenergetics, temperature and biomass growth in particular are highlighted. Alternative model approaches that quantify the degradation rate constant are also critically compared. In the third part of the review, the capability of different model approaches to extrapolate organic matter degradation rates over a broad range of temporal and spatial scales is assessed. In addition, the structure, functions and parameterization of more than 250 published models of organic matter degradation in marine sediments are analyzed. The large range of published model parameters illustrates the complex nature of organic matter dynamics, and, thus, the limited transferability of these parameters from one site to another. Compiled model parameters do not reveal a statistically significant correlation with single environmental characteristics such as water depth, deposition rate or organic matter flux. The lack of a generic framework that allows for model parameters to be constrained in data-poor areas seriously limits the quantification of organic matter degradation on a global scale. Therefore, we explore regional patterns that emerge from the compiled more than 250 organic matter rate constants and critically discuss them in their environmental context. This review provides an interdisciplinary view on organic matter degradation in marine sediments. It contributes to an improved understanding of global patterns in benthic organic matter degradation, and helps identify outstanding questions and future directions in the modeling of organic matter degradation in marine sediments.