Scientia Marina, Vol 72, No 1 (2008)

A physiological approach to oceanic processes and glacial-interglacial changes in atmospheric CO2

Josep L. Pelegrí
Institut de Ciències del Mar, CSIC, Barcelona, Spain


One possible path for exploring the Earth’s far-from-equilibrium homeostasis is to assume that it results from the organisation of optimal pulsating systems, analogous to that in complex living beings. Under this premise it becomes natural to examine the Earth’s organisation using physiological-like variables. Here we identify some of these main variables for the ocean’s circulatory system: pump rate, stroke volume, carbon and nutrient arterial-venous differences, inorganic nutrients and carbon supply, and metabolic rate. The stroke volume is proportional to the water transported into the thermocline and deep oceans, and the arterial-venous differences occur between recently-upwelled deep waters and very productive high-latitudes waters, with atmospheric CO2 being an indicator of the arterial-venous inorganic carbon difference. The metabolic rate is the internal-energy flux (here expressed as flux of inorganic carbon in the upper ocean) required by the system’s machinery, i.e. community respiration. We propose that the pump rate is set externally by the annual cycle, at one beat per year per hemisphere, and that the autotrophic ocean adjusts its stroke volume and arterial-venous differences to modify the internal-energy demand, triggered by long-period astronomical insolation cycles (external-energy supply). With this perspective we may conceive that the Earth’s interglacial-glacial cycle responds to an internal organisation analogous to that occurring in living beings during an exercise-recovery cycle. We use an idealised double-state metabolic model of the upper ocean (with the inorganic carbon/nutrients supply specified through the overturning rate and the steady-state inorganic carbon/nutrients concentrations) to obtain the temporal evolution of its inorganic carbon concentration, which mimics the glacial-interglacial atmospheric CO2 pattern.


eep-water formation; thermocline circulation; ocean physiology; Milankovitch cycles; arterial-venous concentration differences; organic and inorganic carbon; metabolic rate; glacial-interglacial cycle

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