The shape of the oceanic nitracline
Abstract. In most regions of the ocean, nitrate is depleted near the surface by phytoplankton consumption and increases with depth, exhibiting a strong vertical gradient in the pycnocline (here referred to as the nitracline). The vertical supply of nutrients to the surface euphotic zone is influenced by the vertical gradient (slope) of the nitracline and by the vertical separation (depth) of the nitracline from the sunlit surface layer. Hence it is important to understand the shape (slope and curvature) and depth of the oceanic nitracline. By using density coordinates to analyze nitrate profiles from autonomous Autonomous Profiling EXplorer floats with In-Situ Ultraviolet Spectrophotometers (APEX-ISUS) and ship-based platforms (World Ocean Atlas – WOA09; Hawaii Ocean Time-series – HOT; Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study – BATS; and California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations – CalCOFI), we are able to eliminate much of the spatial and temporal variability in the profiles and derive robust relationships between nitrate and density. This allows us to characterize the depth, slope and curvature of the nitracline in different regions of the world's oceans. The analysis reveals distinguishing patterns in the nitracline between subtropical gyres, upwelling regions and subpolar gyres. We propose a one-dimensional, mechanistic model that relates the shape of the nitracline to the relative depths of the surface mixed layer and euphotic layer. Though heuristic, the model accounts for some of the seasonal patterns and regional differences in the nitrate–density relationships seen in the data.