Contribution of picophytoplankton to carbon export in the equatorial Pacific: A reassessment of food web flux inferences from inverse models

Stukel, Michael R., and Michael R. Landry

Limnol. Oceanogr., 55(6), 2010, 2669-2685 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2010.55.6.2669

ABSTRACT: The paradigm that carbon export is derived almost exclusively from the primary production of large phytoplankton has been challenged by inverse ecosystem modeling studies that suggest that most carbon export in the open ocean is fueled by picophytoplankton. To readdress this hypothesis, we use an inverse model to synthesize the planktonic rate measurements from a pair of recent cruises in the equatorial Pacific. The analysis based on this new experimental data, which crucially include vertically integrated taxon-specific production and grazing estimates, largely resolve the unexpected results of the previous inverse studies, including unbalanced growth and grazing processes and the dominance of production by picophytoplankton. While this very small size class does not produce the majority of phytoplankton carbon that is eventually exported to depth (only 23%, vs. 73% from a previous analysis of Joint Global Ocean Flux Study Equatorial Pacific data), our base model supports the conclusion that the role of picophytoplankton in vertical carbon flux is largely proportional to their contribution to net primary productivity (though neither is proportional to biomass). We show, however, that export-production proportionality is sensitive to the model representation of the detrital pool such that the relative export role of picophytoplankton declines substantially for an alternate model with size-structured detritus. A definitive assessment of the role of picoplankton in vertical carbon flux will thus require detailed experimental examination of the origin, composition, and fate of euphotic zone detrital material.

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