The Importance of Submesoscale Versus Basin-scale Processes in Driving the Subpolar Spring Phytoplankton Bloom.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Sarah Brody, Duke University, Earth and Ocean Sciences, Durham, NC, United States, Amala Mahadevan, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, United States and M. Susan Lozier, Duke University, Durham, NC, United States
The subpolar spring phytoplankton bloom has important consequences for marine ecosystems and the carbon cycle. The timing of the bloom has been conceived of as a basin-scale event: as the ocean warms, the seasonal mixed layer shoals, restricting phytoplankton to shallower depths and increasing available light to a level at which the bloom can begin. Recent studies have highlighted the importance of localized phenomena in driving the bloom initiation. Specifically, the role of lateral density gradients in generating <10km instabilities in the upper ocean, which then stratify the mixed layer before surface heating begins, has been explored with a process study model and fine-scale observations from a field program to study the North Atlantic spring bloom [1]. However, an alternative hypothesis has recently been validated at both the small scale, using the same observational data [2], and at the basin scale, using remote sensing data [3]. According to this hypothesis, blooms begin when surface heat fluxes weaken, mixing shifts from primarily convectively-driven to primarily wind-driven, and the depth of active mixing in the upper ocean consequently decreases.

Here, we compare the importance of the barriers to mixing presented by submesoscale instabilities with the decreases in mixing depth caused by changes in surface forcing in driving the initiation of the spring bloom prior to the onset of surface heating. To make this comparison, we use a Lagrangian framework to track the light history of particles seeded in a high-resolution numerical model that we initialize with various surface forcing scenarios, and with and without lateral density gradients. Because the model parameterizes convection with convective adjustment, we present two methodologies to account for turbulent mixing processes that utilize observations of turbulent vertical mixing from a Lagrangian float. We present conclusions on whether and how submesoscale processes affect bloom initiation under varied surface forcing conditions in the context of whether the timing of the subpolar phytoplankton bloom can be thought of as a basin-scale or submesoscale phenomenon.

[1] A. Mahadevan et al.. Science 337, 6090 (2012).

[2] Brody, S.R. and Lozier, M.S. (under review, ICES J. Mar. Sci)

[3] Brody, S.R. and Lozier, M.S. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, (2014).