Silicate regulation of new production in the equatorial Pacific upwelling

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Surface waters of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean present the enigma of apparently high plant-nutrient concentrations but low phytoplankton biomass and productivity1. One explanation for this ‘high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll’ (HNLC) phenomenon has been that growth is limited by iron availability2,3. Here we use field data and a simple silicon-cycle model4 to investigate the HNLC condition for the upwelling zone of this ocean region. Measured silicate concentrations in surface waters are low and largely invariant with time, and set the upper limit on the total possible biological utilization of dissolved inorganic carbon. Chemical and biological data from surface waters indicate that diatoms—silica-shelled phytoplankton—carry out all the ‘new production’ (nitrate uptake)5. Smaller phytoplankton (picoplankton) accomplish most of the total primary production, largely fuelled by nitrogen regenerated in reduced forms as a result of grazing by zooplankton. The model predicts values of new and export production (the production exported to below the euphotic zone) that compare well with measured values6. New and export production are in balance for biogenic silica, whereas new production exceeds export for nitrogen. The HNLC condition in the upwelling zone can therefore be understood to be due to a chemostat-like regulation of nitrate uptake by upwelled silicate supply to diatoms: ‘low-silicate HNLC’. These results are not inconsistent with observations of iron-fertilized diatom growth during in situ experiments in ‘low-iron HNLC’ waters outside this upwelling zone2,3, but reflect the role of different supply rates of iron and silicate in determining the nature of the HNLC condition.

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Figure 1: Data from the upper 200 m of water, at 140° W, 1° N to 1° S measured during JGOFS EqPac autumn 1.
Figure 2: Silicate pump model4 modified to include a picoplankton/micrograzer loop.


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This work was supported by the US NSF and Region Provence Alpes Maritimes Cooperative Agreement.

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Correspondence to Richard C. Dugdale.

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