Letters to Nature

Nature 434, 211-214 (10 March 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature03370; Received 1 November 2004; Accepted 17 January 2005

Agricultural runoff fuels large phytoplankton blooms in vulnerable areas of the ocean

J. Michael Beman1, Kevin R. Arrigo2 & Pamela A. Matson1,3

  1. Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences,
  2. Department of Geophysics and
  3. School of Earth Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

Correspondence to: J. Michael Beman1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.M.B. (Email: beman@stanford.edu).

Biological productivity in most of the world's oceans is controlled by the supply of nutrients to surface waters. The relative balance between supply and removal of nutrients—including nitrogen, iron and phosphorus—determines which nutrient limits phytoplankton growth. Although nitrogen limits productivity in much of the ocean1, 2, large portions of the tropics and subtropics are defined by extreme nitrogen depletion. In these regions, microbial denitrification removes biologically available forms of nitrogen from the water column, producing substantial deficits relative to other nutrients3, 4, 5. Here we demonstrate that nitrogen-deficient areas of the tropical and subtropical oceans are acutely vulnerable to nitrogen pollution. Despite naturally high nutrient concentrations and productivity6, 7, 8, nitrogen-rich agricultural runoff fuels large (54–577 km2) phytoplankton blooms in the Gulf of California. Runoff exerts a strong and consistent influence on biological processes, in 80% of cases stimulating blooms within days of fertilization and irrigation of agricultural fields. We project that by the year 2050, 27–59% of all nitrogen fertilizer will be applied in developing regions located upstream of nitrogen-deficient marine ecosystems. Our findings highlight the present and future vulnerability of these ecosystems to agricultural runoff.

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