Although the carbon isotopic composition of ocean waters after they leave the surface ocean is determined by biological cycling, air-sea exchange affects the carbon isotopic composition of surface waters in two ways. The equilibrium fractionation between oceanic and atmospheric carbon increases with decreasing temperature. In Southern Ocean Surface Waters this isotopic equilibration enriches delta(13)C relative to the delta(13)C expected from uptake and release of carbon by biological processes alone. Similarly, surface waters in the subtropical gyres are depleted in delta(13)C due to extensive air-sea exchange at warm temperatures. Countering the tendency toward isotopic equilibration with the atmosphere (a relatively slow process), are the effects of the equilibration of CO2 itself (a much faster process). In regions where there is a net transfer of isotopically light CO2 from the ocean to the atmosphere (e.g., the equator) surface waters become enriched in C-13, whereas in regions where isotopically light CO2 is entering the ocean (e.g., the North Atlantic) surface waters become depleted in C-13. A compilation of high quality oceanic delta(13)C measurements along with experiments performed using a zonally averaged three-basin dynamic ocean model are used to explore these processes.
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