Seasonal Variation of Phytoplankton and Primary Production in the Thames River, Southeastern Connecticut

Sam C. Wainright, US Coast Guard Academy, New London, CT, United States
A year-long study was performed to investigate seasonal changes in the phytoplankton biomass and primary production in the Thames River, a salt wedge estuary that empties into Long Island Sound in southeastern CT. Chlorophyll measurements were made on discrete filtered samples collected above and below the 1-3 m deep pycnocline at a 5-meter deep station. Surface chlorophyll concentrations, primarily from diatoms, averaged approx. 2 mg m-3, with maxima (up to 10 mg m-3) during summer months (Jun to Aug) and minima during October through March (as low as 0.3 mg m-3). The lower water layer had nearly the same annual average but a smaller range (0.7-3.3 mg m-3) and a winter/spring bloom (Jan-Apr) that was not seen in surface water. During most of the winter, chlorophyll concentrations were higher in the lower layer. Primary production, as measured by 13C uptake in bottle incubations, averaged 67 mgC m-3 h-1 in surface water [range 0.1 (Jan 2012) to 800 mgC m-3 h-1 (Aug 2011)], and 3 mgC m-3 h-1 [range 0.04 (Jan 2012) to 17 mgC m-3 h-1 (Aug 2011)] in the lower layer. On most occasions, deep water incubated near the surface had a higher primary production rate than surface water incubated at the surface; apparently the light-limited phytoplankton in the lower layer were released from light-limitation during these incubations. During the study period there were over a dozen heavy wind or heavy rain events, including Hurricane Irene in August and a freak Nor’easter snow storm in October 2011. Hurricane Irene was associated with a large decline in phytoplankton biomass and primary production. With significant storms as frequent as the rate of sampling, it is difficult to separate a “storm effect” from a background seasonal pattern. The study reveals that phytoplankton, especially those in the lower layer, are light-limited in the Thames River estuary, and that the effects of significant storm events are superimposed on significant seasonal variation.