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Rising CO2 and increased light exposure synergistically reduce marine primary productivity

Abstract

Carbon dioxide and light are two major prerequisites of photosynthesis. Rising CO2 levels in oceanic surface waters in combination with ample light supply are therefore often considered stimulatory to marine primary production1,2,3. Here we show that the combination of an increase in both CO2 and light exposure negatively impacts photosynthesis and growth of marine primary producers. When exposed to CO2 concentrations projected for the end of this century4, natural phytoplankton assemblages of the South China Sea responded with decreased primary production and increased light stress at light intensities representative of the upper surface layer. The phytoplankton community shifted away from diatoms, the dominant phytoplankton group during our field campaigns. To examine the underlying mechanisms of the observed responses, we grew diatoms at different CO2 concentrations and under varying levels (5–100%) of solar radiation experienced by the phytoplankton at different depths of the euphotic zone. Above 22–36% of incident surface irradiance, growth rates in the high-CO2-grown cells were inversely related to light levels and exhibited reduced thresholds at which light becomes inhibitory. Future shoaling of upper-mixed-layer depths will expose phytoplankton to increased mean light intensities5. In combination with rising CO2 levels, this may cause a widespread decline in marine primary production and a community shift away from diatoms, the main algal group that supports higher trophic levels and carbon export in the ocean.

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Figure 1: Primary production in CO2-perturbed microcosms by phytoplankton assemblages collected in the SCS and East China Sea (station PN07).
Figure 2: Growth rates of cultured diatoms as a function of pCO2 and light.
Figure 3: High- to low-pCO2 ratios for growth rates and photosynthetic parameters in cultured diatoms.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the expedition chief scientists M. Dai, P. Cai and W. Zhai and the crew from Dong-Fang-Hong for their support and help during the cruises. The cruise and laboratory studies were supported by the National Basic Research Program of China (2009CB421207, 2011CB200902) and by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 41120164007 and no. 40930846). The Changjiang Scholars and Innovative Research Team project (IRT0941) and China–Japan collaboration project from the Ministry of Science and Technology (S2012GR0290) are also acknowledged for the field work. D.A.H’s contribution was supported by the United States National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences grants 0942379, 0962309 and 1043748. U.R. acknowledges support by the German Ministry of Education and Research through the project BIOACID. Visits of D.A.H. and U.R. to Xiamen were supported by the 111 project and by the State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science (Xiamen University). The visit of K.G. to Kiel was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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On the basis of an original idea from K.G., the concept of this paper was developed in discussion between all authors. J.X. and G.G. contributed as equally as K.G. for their leading roles in laboratory and field experiments, respectively. U.R. and D.A.H. contributed to experimental designs, data analysis and the writing of the paper. D-P.H. contributed to the analysis of the data and writing of the paper. G.G., Y.Z., P.J., K.X., B.H., L.W. and N.L. carried out shipboard experiments; J.X., Y.L., X.C. and W.L. carried out laboratory experiments.

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Correspondence to Kunshan Gao.

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Gao, K., Xu, J., Gao, G. et al. Rising CO2 and increased light exposure synergistically reduce marine primary productivity. Nature Clim Change 2, 519–523 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1507

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