In large swaths of the ocean, primary production by diatoms may be limited by the availability of silica, which in turn limits the biological uptake of carbon dioxide. The burial of biogenic silica in the form of opal is the main sink of marine silicon. Opal burial occurs in equal parts in iron-limited open-ocean provinces and upwelling margins, especially the eastern Pacific upwelling zone. However, it is unclear why opal burial is so efficient in this margin. Here we measure fluxes of biogenic material, concentrations of diatom-bound iron and silicon isotope ratios using sediment traps and a sediment core from the Gulf of California upwelling margin. In the sediment trap material, we find that periods of intense upwelling are associated with transient iron limitation that results in a high export of silica relative to organic carbon. A similar correlation between enhanced silica burial and iron limitation is evident in the sediment core, which spans the past 26,000 years. A global compilation also indicates that hotspots of silicon burial in the ocean are all characterized by high silica to organic carbon export ratios, a diagnostic trait for diatoms growing under iron stress. We therefore propose that prevailing conditions of silica limitation in the ocean are largely caused by iron deficiency imposing an indirect constraint on oceanic carbon uptake.