Decadal variability in North Atlantic phytoplankton blooms

Stephanie A. Henson, John P. Dunne, Jorge Louis Sarmiento

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227 Scopus citations


The interannual to decadal variability in the timing and magnitude of the North Atlantic phytoplankton bloom is examined using a combination of satellite data and output from an ocean biogeochemistry general circulation model. The timing of the bloom as estimated from satellite chlorophyll data is used as a novel metric for validating the model's skill. Maps of bloom timing reveal that the subtropical bloom begins in winter and progresses northward starting in May in subpolar regions. A transition zone, which experiences substantial interannual variability in bloom timing, separates the two regions. Time series of the modeled decadal (1959-2004) variability in bloom timing show no long-term trend toward earlier or delayed blooms in any of the three regions considered here. However, the timing of the subpolar bloom does show distinct decadal-scale periodicity, which is found to be correlated with the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index. The mechanism underpinning the relationship is identified as anomalous wind-driven mixing conditions associated with the NAO. In positive NAO phases, stronger westerly winds result in deeper mixed layers, delaying the start of the subpolar spring bloom by 2-3 weeks. The subpolar region also expands during positive phases, pushing the transition zone further south in the central North Atlantic. The magnitude of the bloom is found to be only weakly dependent on bloom timing, but is more strongly correlated with mixed layer depth. The extensive interannual variability in the timing of the bloom, particularly in the transition region, is expected to strongly impact the availability of food to higher trophic levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberC04013
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 8 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Oceanography


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