Articles | Volume 8, issue 7
Research article
13 Jul 2011
Research article |  | 13 Jul 2011

A coupled physical-biological model of the Northern Gulf of Mexico shelf: model description, validation and analysis of phytoplankton variability

K. Fennel, R. Hetland, Y. Feng, and S. DiMarco

Abstract. The Texas-Louisiana shelf in the Northern Gulf of Mexico receives large inputs of nutrients and freshwater from the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River system. The nutrients stimulate high rates of primary production in the river plume, which contributes to the development of a large and recurring hypoxic area in summer, but the mechanistic links between hypoxia and river discharge of freshwater and nutrients are complex as the accumulation and vertical export of organic matter, the establishment and maintenance of vertical stratification, and the microbial degradation of organic matter are controlled by a non-linear interplay of factors. Unraveling these interactions will have to rely on a combination of observations and models. Here we present results from a realistic, 3-dimensional, physical-biological model with focus on a quantification of nutrient-stimulated phytoplankton growth, its variability and the fate of this organic matter. We demonstrate that the model realistically reproduces many features of observed nitrate and phytoplankton dynamics including observed property distributions and rates. We then contrast the environmental factors and phytoplankton source and sink terms characteristic of three model subregions that represent an ecological gradient from eutrophic to oligotrophic conditions. We analyze specifically the reasons behind the counterintuitive observation that primary production in the light-limited plume region near the Mississippi River delta is positively correlated with river nutrient input, and find that, while primary production and phytoplankton biomass are positively correlated with nutrient load, phytoplankton growth rate is not. This suggests that accumulation of biomass in this region is not primarily controlled bottom up by nutrient-stimulation, but top down by systematic differences in the loss processes.

Final-revised paper