A line in the sea

Abstract

THE ocean has considerable spatial and temporal heterogeneity in biomass and productivity owing in part to the effects of ocean circulation and mixing1,2. Water mass boundaries (fronts) in coastal waters are well-known sites of enhanced biological activity3,4. Comparatively little is known of open-ocean fronts, and one of the few biological studies of an oceanic front showed phytoplankton biomass at only slightly higher densities than in surrounding waters5. Here we present photographs and measurements from satellites, aircraft, ships and the Space Shuttle Atlantis which show dramatic biological responses to circulation and mixing processes associated with an open-ocean front. Breaking waves (whitecaps) caused by water turbulence and mixing, and very dark green water caused by extremely high concentrations (>20 mg of chlorophyll a per m3) of buoyant diatoms (Rhizosolenia sp.) made a distinct line in the sea visible for hundreds of kilometres. The line traced the northern edge of a westward-progagating (50 km per day) tropical instability wave (1,000-km wavelength) delineating the boundary between cold, upwelled waters and warmer waters to the north. High phytoplankton biomass and primary production associated with the extensive diatom patches may explain anecdotal observations of high animal abundance along this frontal boundary.

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Yoder, J., Ackleson, S., Barber, R. et al. A line in the sea. Nature 371, 689–692 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1038/371689a0

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