Latitudinal variations in benthic processes in the abyssal equatorial Pacific: control by biogenic particle flux
The equatorial Pacific forms a band of high, globally significant primary production. This productivity drops off steeply with distance from equatorial upwelling, yielding large latitudinal gradients in biogenic particle flux to the abyssal seafloor. As part of the US JGOFS Program, we studied the translation of these particle-flux gradients into the benthic ecosystem from 12°S to 9°N along 135-140°W to evaluate their control of key benthic processes, and to evaluate sediment proxies of export production from overlying waters. In October-December 1992 the remineralization rates of organic carbon, calcium carbonate and biogenic opal roughly matched the rain rates of these materials into deep sediment traps, exhibiting peak values within 3° of the equator. Rates of bioturbation near the equator were about ten-fold greater than at 9°N, and appeared to exhibit substantial dependence on particulate-organic-carbon flux, tracer time scale (i.e. age-dependent mixing), and pulsed mixing from burrowing urchins. Organic-carbon degradation within sediments near the equator was dominated by a very labile component (reaction rate constant, k approximately 15 per year) that appeared to be derived from greenish phytodetritus accumulated on the seafloor. Organic-carbon degradation at the highest latitudes was controlled by a less reactive component, with a mean k of approximately 0.075 per year. Where measured, megafaunal and macrofaunal abundances were strongly correlated with annual particulate-organic carbon flux; macrofaunal abundance in particular might potentially serve as a proxy for export production in low-energy abyssal habitats. Sedimentary microbial biomass also was correlated with the rain rate of organic carbon, but less strongly than larger biota and on shorter time scales (i.e. approximately 100 days). We conclude that the vertical flux of biogenic particlues exerts tight control on the nature and rates of benthic biological and chemical processes in the abyssal equatorial Pacific, and suggest that global changes in productivity on decadal or greater time scales could yield profound changes in deep-sea benthic ecoystems.