Nature 442, 1025-1028 (31 August 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature05083; Received 14 December 2005; Accepted 19 July 2006

Controls on tropical Pacific Ocean productivity revealed through nutrient stress diagnostics

Michael J. Behrenfeld1, Kirby Worthington2, Robert M. Sherrell3, Francisco P. Chavez4, Peter Strutton5, Michael McPhaden6 and Donald M. Shea7

In situ enrichment experiments have shown that the growth of bloom-forming diatoms in the major high-nitrate low-chlorophyll (HNLC) regions of the world's oceans is limited by the availability of iron1, 2, 3. Yet even the largest of these manipulative experiments represents only a small fraction of an ocean basin, and the responses observed are strongly influenced by the proliferation of rare species rather than the growth of naturally dominant populations4, 5. Here we link unique fluorescence attributes of phytoplankton to specific physiological responses to nutrient stress, and use these relationships to evaluate the factors that constrain phytoplankton growth in the tropical Pacific Ocean on an unprecedented spatial scale. On the basis of fluorescence measurements taken over 12 years, we delineate three major ecophysiological regimes in this region. We find that iron has a key function in regulating phytoplankton growth in both HNLC and oligotrophic waters near the Equator and further south, whereas nitrogen and zooplankton grazing are the primary factors that regulate biomass production in the north. Application of our findings to the interpretation of satellite chlorophyll fields shows that productivity in the tropical Pacific basin may be 1.2–2.5 Pg C yr-1 lower than previous estimates have suggested, a difference that is comparable to the global change in ocean production that accompanied the largest El Niño to La Niña transition on record6.

  1. Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Cordley Hall 2082, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-2902, USA
  2. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA
  3. Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Department of Geological Sciences, Rutgers University, 71 Dudley Road, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901-8521, USA
  4. Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, 7700 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing, California 95039-9644, USA
  5. College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, 104 COAS Admin Building, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-5503, USA
  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA
  7. Science Applications International Corporation, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

Correspondence to: Michael J. Behrenfeld1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to M.J.B. (Email: mjb@science.oregonstate.edu).

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