Global variability of phytoplankton functional types from space: assessment via the particle size distribution
Abstract. A new method of retrieving the parameters of a power-law particle size distribution (PSD) from ocean color remote sensing data was used to assess the global distribution and dynamics of phytoplankton functional types (PFT's). The method retrieves the power-law slope, ξ, and the abundance at a reference diameter, N0, based upon the shape and magnitude of the particulate backscattering coefficient spectrum. Relating the PSD to PFT's on global scales assumes that the open ocean particulate assemblage is biogenic. The retrieved PSD's can be integrated to define three size-based PFT's by the percent volume concentration contribution of three phytoplankton size classes – picoplankton (0.5–2 μm in equivalent spherical diameter), nanoplankton (2–20 μm) and microplankton (20–50 μm). Validation with in-situ HPLC diagnostic pigments resulted in better match-ups for the pico- and micro-phytoplankton size classes as compared to nanoplankton. Global decadal averages derived from SeaWiFS monthly data reveal PFT and particle abundance spatial patterns that are consistent with current understanding. Oligotrophic gyres are characterized by lower particle abundance and higher contribution by picoplankton-sized particles than transitional or eutrophic regions. Seasonal succession patterns for size-based PFT's reveal good correspondence between increasing chlorophyll concentration and percent contribution by microplankton, as well as increasing particle abundance. Long-term trends in particle abundances are generally well correlated with the MEI index indicating increased oligotrophy (i.e. lower particle abundance and increased contribution of picoplankton-sized particles) during the warm phase of an El Niño event. This work demonstrates the utility and future potential of assessing phytoplankton functional types using remote characterization of the particle size distribution.