Articles | Volume 7, issue 12
Research article
02 Dec 2010
Research article |  | 02 Dec 2010

Response of ocean phytoplankton community structure to climate change over the 21st century: partitioning the effects of nutrients, temperature and light

I. Marinov, S. C. Doney, and I. D. Lima

Abstract. The response of ocean phytoplankton community structure to climate change depends, among other factors, upon species competition for nutrients and light, as well as the increase in surface ocean temperature. We propose an analytical framework linking changes in nutrients, temperature and light with changes in phytoplankton growth rates, and we assess our theoretical considerations against model projections (1980–2100) from a global Earth System model. Our proposed "critical nutrient hypothesis" stipulates the existence of a critical nutrient threshold below (above) which a nutrient change will affect small phytoplankton biomass more (less) than diatom biomass, i.e. the phytoplankton with lower half-saturation coefficient K are influenced more strongly in low nutrient environments. This nutrient threshold broadly corresponds to 45° S and 45° N, poleward of which high vertical mixing and inefficient biology maintain higher surface nutrient concentrations and equatorward of which reduced vertical mixing and more efficient biology maintain lower surface nutrients. In the 45° S–45° N low nutrient region, decreases in limiting nutrients – associated with increased stratification under climate change – are predicted analytically to decrease more strongly the specific growth of small phytoplankton than the growth of diatoms. In high latitudes, the impact of nutrient decrease on phytoplankton biomass is more significant for diatoms than small phytoplankton, and contributes to diatom declines in the northern marginal sea ice and subpolar biomes. In the context of our model, climate driven increases in surface temperature and changes in light are predicted to have a stronger impact on small phytoplankton than on diatom biomass in all ocean domains. Our analytical predictions explain reasonably well the shifts in community structure under a modeled climate-warming scenario. Climate driven changes in nutrients, temperature and light have regionally varying and sometimes counterbalancing impacts on phytoplankton biomass and structure, with nutrients and temperature dominant in the 45° S–45° N band and light-temperature effects dominant in the marginal sea-ice and subpolar regions. As predicted, decreases in nutrients inside the 45° S–45° N "critical nutrient" band result in diatom biomass decreasing more than small phytoplankton biomass. Further stratification from global warming could result in geographical shifts in the "critical nutrient" threshold and additional changes in ecology.

Final-revised paper