Phytoplankton distribution and survival in the thermocline

Sharples, Jonathan, C. Mark Moore, Tom P. Rippeth, Patrick M. Holligan, David J. Hydes, Neil R. Fisher, John H. Simpson

Limnol. Oceanogr., 46(3), 2001, 486-496 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2001.46.3.0486

ABSTRACT: Observations of the vertical structure of density, concentrations of chlorophyll a and nitrate, and turbulent dissipation rates were made over a period of 25 h in a well-stratified shelf region in the Western English Channel, between neap and spring tides. Maximum turbulent dissipation at the base of the thermocline occurred almost 5 h after maximum tidal currents. This turbulence aids phytoplankton growth by supplying bottom-layer nutrients into the subsurface chlorophyll maximum but reduces phytoplankton concentrations in the thermocline by mixing cells from the base of the subsurface maximum into the bottom mixed layer. The turbulent dissipation observations were used to estimate an average nitrate flux into the thermocline of 2.0 (0.8-3.2, 95% confidence interval) mmol m-2 d-1, which is estimated to have been capable of supporting new phytoplankton growth at a rate of 160 (64-256) mg C m-2 d-1. Turbulent entrainment of carbon from the base of the subsurface biomass maximum into the bottom mixed layer was observed to be 290 (120-480) mg C m-2 d-1. This apparent excess export from the chlorophyll maximum is suggested to be a feature of the spring-neap cycle, with export dominating as the tidal turbulence increases toward spring tides and erodes the base of the thermocline. The observed rate of carbon export into the bottom mixed layer could account for as much as 25% of the gross annual primary production in stratifying shelf seas. Such turbulent losses, combined with grazing losses and low light levels, suggest that phytoplankton need to be highly adapted to environmental conditions within the thermocline in order to survive.

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