Mesoscale eddies dominate surface phytoplankton in northern Gulf of Alaska

Author(s): Crawford WR, Brickley PJ, Thomas AC


The HNLC waters of the Gulf of Alaska normally receive too little iron for primary productivity to draw down silicate and nitrate in surface waters, even in spring and summer. Our observations of chlorophyll sensed by SeaWiFS north of 54°N in pelagic waters (>500 m depth) of the gulf found that, on average, more than half of all surface chlorophyll was inside the 4 cm contours of anticyclonic mesoscale eddies (the ratio approaches 80% in spring months), yet these contours enclosed only 10% of the total surface area of pelagic waters in the gulf. Therefore, eddies dominate the chlorophyll and phytoplankton distribution in surface pelagic waters. We outline several eddy processes that enhance primary productivity. Eddies near the continental margin entrain nutrient – (and Fe) – rich and chlorophyll-rich coastal waters into their outer rings, advecting these waters into the basin interior to directly increase phytoplankton populations there. In addition, eddies carry excess nutrients and iron in their core waters into pelagic regions as they propagate away from the continental margin. As these anticyclonic eddies decay, their depressed isopycnals relax upward, injecting nutrients up toward the surface layer. We propose that this transport brings iron and macro-nutrients toward the surface mixed layer, where they are available for wind-forced mixing to bring them to surface. These mesoscale eddies decay slowly, but steadily, perhaps providing a relatively regular upward supply of macro-nutrients and iron toward euphotic layers. They might behave as isolated oases of enhanced marine productivity in an otherwise iron-poor basin. We note that much of this productivity might be near or just below the base of the surface mixed layer, and therefore poorly sampled by colour-sensing satellites. It is possible, then, that eddies enrich phytoplankton populations to a greater extent than noted from satellite surface observations only.

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