Coccolithophore surface distributions in the North Atlantic and their modulation of the air-sea flux of CO2 from 10 years of satellite Earth observation data
Abstract. Coccolithophores are the primary oceanic phytoplankton responsible for the production of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). These climatically important plankton play a key role in the oceanic carbon cycle as a major contributor of carbon to the open ocean carbonate pump (~50%) and their calcification can affect the atmosphere-to-ocean (air-sea) uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) through increasing the seawater partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2). Here we document variations in the areal extent of surface blooms of the globally important coccolithophore, Emiliania huxleyi, in the North Atlantic over a 10-year period (1998–2007), using Earth observation data from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS). We calculate the annual mean sea surface areal coverage of E. huxleyi in the North Atlantic to be 474 000 ± 104 000 km2, which results in a net CaCO3 carbon (CaCO3-C) production of 0.14–1.71 Tg CaCO3-C per year. However, this surface coverage (and, thus, net production) can fluctuate inter-annually by −54/+8% about the mean value and is strongly correlated with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate oscillation index (r=0.75, p<0.02). Our analysis evaluates the spatial extent over which the E. huxleyi blooms in the North Atlantic can increase the pCO2 and, thus, decrease the localised air-sea flux of atmospheric CO2. In regions where the blooms are prevalent, the average reduction in the monthly air-sea CO2 flux can reach 55%. The maximum reduction of the monthly air-sea CO2 flux in the time series is 155%. This work suggests that the high variability, frequency and distribution of these calcifying plankton and their impact on pCO2 should be considered if we are to fully understand the variability of the North Atlantic air-to-sea flux of CO2. We estimate that these blooms can reduce the annual N. Atlantic net sink atmospheric CO2 by between 3–28%.