Awardee: Carolyn Buchwald (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Current Placement: Assistant Professor of Oceanography, Dalhousie University
Degree: Ph.D. Chemical Oceanography, MIT/WHOI Joint Program (2013)
Advisor: Scott D. Wankel (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Amount: $120,000.00
Award Dates: June 1, 2014 — May 31, 2016


Deep-sea sediments in the oligotrophic ocean host a diverse array of microbes that are involved in multiple processes within the nitrogen cycle. Using measurements of nitrate and nitrite, and their stable isotopes (d15N and d18O) in sedimentary pore fluids, we have been developing approaches for determining the distribution and magnitude of key processes in the oligotrophic sediments of the North Atlantic. While concentration profiles alone indicate the production of nitrate through nitrification in the surface sediments and the reduction of the nitrate deeper in the absence of oxygen, the dual stable isotope profiles of NO3 and NO2 demonstrate clear evidence of further complexity; specifically, that nitrite oxidation occurs deeper in the sediments as well, apparently in the absence of O2. A number of lines of evidence contribute to this refined understanding of the distribution of N cycling processes in these environments, including large differences in the nitrate and nitrite d15N, as well as the evolution of a greater than 1:1 relationship between the d15N and d18O of nitrate. We used a 1D inverse model that predicts the distribution and rates of different oxidative and reductive nitrogen cycling processes throughout these vertical profiles. Our analysis reveals that nitrate reduction and nitrite oxidation co-occur between 0 and 10 meters, and that the ratio of these processes changes in relation to the abundance of porewater oxygen. In the upper profile where dissolved oxygen is more abundant oxidative processes (e.g., nitrite re-oxidation) play an exceptionally large role, as reflected in the very high slope for the evolving relationship between d15N and d18O nitrate. Below the depth of oxygen penetration, while nitrate reduction becomes a substantially more important processes, a clear indication of oxidation remains – as reflected in the large difference between nitrate and nitrite d15N. All rates were predicted to be slow on the order of 0.1 mM per year, which was substantiated by d18O values of nitrite reflecting complete isotopic equilibration with water.