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Feedbacks between phytoplankton and nutrient cycles in a warming ocean

Abstract

Climate warming increasingly drives changes in large-scale ocean physics and biogeochemistry, and affects the kinetics of biological reactions. Together these factors govern phytoplankton productivity, thereby shaping the responses of ocean carbon and nutrient cycles to global change. Here we bring together results from experimental, observational and modelling studies to highlight how interactive feedbacks between warming and nutrient limitation can affect the responses of biogeochemically critical marine primary producers. The availability of many bioactive elements in seawater will be altered markedly in the future, thereby shifting resource deficiencies. These modifications to nutrient limitation when compounded by concurrent warming can change phytoplankton optimum growth temperatures and elemental use efficiencies in group-specific and nutrient-specific ways. The biogeochemical impacts of these nutrient and warming interactions reflect a distinction between the thermal reactivity of major cellular structural elements like nitrogen (N) and catalytic micronutrients like iron (Fe). Integrating the mechanistic feedbacks between warming, nutrient availability and primary productivity into Earth system models is necessary to improve confidence in projections of ocean biogeochemical cycle transformations in a changing climate.

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Fig. 1: Projected poleward shifts in distributions of biogeochemically important phytoplankton functional groups with extreme warming.
Fig. 2: Idealized temperature response curves for growth and metabolic rates relative to nutrient availability in phytoplankton.
Fig. 3: Effects of warming on phytoplankton IUEs.
Fig. 4: Phytoplankton PUEs increase linearly with temperature.
Fig. 5: Developing improved ESMs of ocean warming and nutrient interactions.

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Acknowledgements

Grant support was provided by US National Science Foundation grants OCE 2149837 and OCE 1851222 to D.A.H., and UK NERC NE/Y004531/1 to A.T. Thanks to P. P. Qu and Y. Y. Feng for assistance with data replotting.

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D.A.H. and A.T. contributed equally to researching, writing and revising this Review.

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Correspondence to David A. Hutchins or Alessandro Tagliabue.

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Hutchins, D.A., Tagliabue, A. Feedbacks between phytoplankton and nutrient cycles in a warming ocean. Nat. Geosci. 17, 495–502 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-024-01454-w

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