Vivianite formation in methane-rich deep-sea sediments from the South China Sea

Jiarui Liu, Gareth Izon, Jiasheng Wang, Gilad Antler, Zhou Wang, Jie Zhao, Matthias Egger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Phosphorus is often invoked as the ultimate limiting nutrient, modulating primary productivity on geological timescales. Consequently, along with nitrogen, phosphorus bioavailability exerts a fundamental control on organic carbon production, linking all the biogeochemical cycles across the Earth system. Unlike nitrogen that can be microbially fixed from an essentially infinite atmospheric reservoir, phosphorus availability is dictated by the interplay between its sources and sinks. While authigenic apatite formation has received considerable attention as the dominant sedimentary phosphorus sink, the quantitative importance of reduced iron-phosphate minerals, such as vivianite, has only recently been acknowledged, and their importance remains underexplored. Combining microscopic and spectroscopic analyses of handpicked mineral aggregates with sediment geochemical profiles, we characterize the distribution and mineralogy of iron-phosphate minerals present in methane-rich sediments recovered from the northern South China Sea. Here, we demonstrate that vivianite authigenesis is pervasive in the iron-oxide-rich sediments below the sulfate-methane transition zone (SMTZ). We hypothesize that the downward migration of the SMTZ concentrated vivianite formation below the current SMTZ. Our observations support recent findings from non-steady-state post-glacial sedimentary successions, suggesting that iron reduction below the SMTZ, probably driven by iron-mediated anaerobic oxidation of methane (Fe-AOM), is coupled to phosphorus cycling on a much greater spatial scale than previously assumed. Calculations reveal that vivianite acts as an important burial phase for both iron and phosphorus below the SMTZ, sequestering approximately half of the total reactive iron pool. By extension, sedimentary vivianite formation could serve as a mineralogical marker of Fe-AOM, signalling low-sulfate availability against methanogenic and ferruginous backdrop. Given that similar conditions were likely present throughout vast swathes of Earth's history, it is possible that Fe-AOM and vivianite authigenesis may have modulated methane and phosphorus availability on the early Earth, as well as during later periods of expanded marine oxygen deficiency. A better understanding of vivianite authigenesis, therefore, is fundamental to test long-standing hypotheses linking climate, atmospheric chemistry and the evolution of the biosphere.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6329-6348
Number of pages20
Issue number20
StatePublished - 26 Oct 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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