Large negative excursions in marine carbonate δ13C are commonly associated with period boundaries and mass extinctions. Explanations for these events must be consistent with limitations imposed by carbon-isotope mass balance. At steady state (i.e., for excursions lasting more than 105 yr), the surface ocean δ13C is set by the organic fraction of the total carbon burial rate and the magnitude of the photosynthetic isotope effect. The δ13C of the deep ocean and the surface-to-deep isotope gradient are set by both the organic fraction of the ocean's remineralized particulate flux and the magnitude of the isotope effect. Thus it is the carbon-isotope composition of the deep ocean that is most reflective of internal oceanic processes; the surface ocean records changes in the longer term throughput of carbon in the system. The cessation of organic export from the surface ocean, such as is presumed to have caused the Strangelove ocean condition of the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary, leads to an isotopically homogeneous ocean in decades to centuries. If this condition persists, the ocean's isotopic composition approaches that of the riverine weathering input (in 105 yr). Failure to approach this value during the K/T event suggests continued production and burial of organic carbon, dominantly in either terrestrial or shallow-marine environments.

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