The burial of organic carbon in marine sediments removes carbon dioxide from the ocean–atmosphere pool, provides energy to the deep biosphere, and on geological timescales drives the oxygenation of the atmosphere. Here we quantify natural variations in the burial of organic carbon in deep-sea sediments over the last glacial cycle. Using a new data compilation of hundreds of sediment cores, we show that the accumulation rate of organic carbon in the deep sea was consistently higher (50%) during glacial maxima than during interglacials. The spatial pattern and temporal progression of the changes suggest that enhanced nutrient supply to parts of the surface ocean contributed to the glacial burial pulses, with likely additional contributions from more efficient transfer of organic matter to the deep sea and better preservation of organic matter due to reduced oxygen exposure. These results demonstrate a pronounced climate sensitivity for this global carbon cycle sink.
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