Annual cycles of phytoplankton biomass in the subarctic Atlantic and Pacific Ocean

Toby K. Westberry, Patrick Schultz, Michael J. Behrenfeld, John P. Dunne, Michael R. Hiscock, Stephane Maritorena, Jorge Louis Sarmiento, David A. Siegel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


High-latitude phytoplankton blooms support productive fisheries and play an important role in oceanic uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In the subarctic North Atlantic Ocean, blooms are a recurrent feature each year, while in the eastern subarctic Pacific only small changes in chlorophyll (Chl) are seen over the annual cycle. Here we show that when evaluated using phytoplankton carbon biomass (Cphyto) rather than Chl, an annual bloom in the North Pacific is evident and can even rival blooms observed in the North Atlantic. The annual increase in subarctic Pacific phytoplankton biomass is not readily observed in the Chl record because it is paralleled by light- and nutrient-driven decreases in cellular pigment levels (Cphyto:Chl). Specifically, photoacclimation and iron stress effects on Cphyto:Chl oppose the biomass increase, leading to only modest changes in bulk Chl. The magnitude of the photoacclimation effect is quantified using descriptors of the near-surface light environment and a photophysiological model. Iron stress effects are diagnosed from satellite chlorophyll fluorescence data. Lastly, we show that biomass accumulation in the Pacific is slower than that in the Atlantic but is closely tied to similar levels of seasonal nutrient uptake in both basins. Annual cycles of satellite-derived Chl and Cphyto are reproduced by in situ autonomous profiling floats. These results contradict the long-standing paradigm that environmental conditions prevent phytoplankton accumulation in the subarctic Northeast Pacific and suggest a greater seasonal decoupling between phytoplankton growth and losses than traditionally implied. Further, our results highlight the role of physiological processes in shaping bulk properties, such as Chl, and their interpretation in studies of ocean ecosystem dynamics and climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-190
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science


  • phytoplankton
  • remote sensing


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