Instabilities Across the Agulhas Current Enhance Upward Nitrate Supply in the Southwest Subtropical Indian Ocean

Tanya A. Marshall, Lisa Beal, Daniel M. Sigman, Sarah E. Fawcett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Agulhas Current, like other western boundary currents (WBCs), transports nutrients laterally from the tropics to the subtropics in a subsurface “nutrient stream.” These nutrients are predominantly supplied to surface waters by seasonal convective mixing, to fuel a brief period of productivity before phytoplankton become nutrient-limited. Episodic mixing events characteristic of WBC systems can temporarily alleviate nutrient scarcity by vertically entraining deep nutrients into surface waters. However, our understanding of these nutrient fluxes is lacking because they are spatio-temporally limited, and once they enter the sunlit layer, the nutrients are rapidly consumed by phytoplankton. Here, we use a novel application of nitrate Δ(15–18), the difference between the nitrogen and oxygen isotope ratios of nitrate, to characterize three (sub)mesoscale events of upward nitrate supply across the Agulhas Current in winter: (1) mixing at the edges of an anticyclonic eddy, (2) inshore upwelling associated with a submesoscale meander of the Agulhas Current, and (3) overturning at the edge of the current core driven by submesoscale instabilities. All three events manifest as upward injections of high-Δ(15–18) nitrate into the thermocline and surface where nitrate Δ(15–18) is otherwise low; these entrainment events are not always apparent in the other co-collected data. The dynamics driving the nitrate supply events are common to all WBCs, implying that nutrient entrainment facilitated by WBCs is quantitatively significant and supports productivity in otherwise oligotrophic subtropical surface waters. A future rise in energy across WBC systems may increase these nutrient fluxes, partly offsetting the predicted stratification-induced decrease in subtropical ocean fertility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2023AV000973
JournalAGU Advances
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


  • (sub)mesoscale instabilities
  • Agulhas Current
  • nitrate entrainment
  • nitrate isotopes
  • ocean productivity
  • western boundary current


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