25 Sep 2023
 | 25 Sep 2023
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal BG.

Southern Ocean phytoplankton under climate change: shifting balance of bottom-up and top-down control

Tianfei Xue, Ivy Frenger, Jens Terhaar, A. E. Friederike Prowe, Thomas L. Frölicher, and Andreas Oschlies

Abstract. Phytoplankton forms the base of the marine food web by transforming CO2 into organic carbon via photosynthesis. Some of the organic carbon is then transferred through the food web and exported into the deep ocean, a process known as the biological carbon pump. Despite the importance of phytoplankton for marine ecosystems and the global carbon cycle, projections of phytoplankton biomass in response to climate change differ strongly across Earth system models, illustrating uncertainty in our understanding of the underlying processes. Differences are especially large in the Southern Ocean, a region that is notoriously difficult to represent in models. Here, we argue that water column-integrated phytoplankton biomass in the Southern Ocean is projected to largely remain unchanged under climate change by the CMIP6 multi-model ensemble because of a shifting balance of bottom-up and top-down processes driven by a shoaling mixed layer depth. A shallower mixed layer is projected to improve growth conditions and consequently weaken bottom-up control. In addition to enhanced phytoplankton growth, the shoaling of the mixed layer also compresses phytoplankton closer to the surface and promotes zooplankton grazing efficiency, thus intensifying top-down control. Overall, our results suggest that while changes in bottom-up conditions stimulate enhanced growth, intensified top-down control opposes an increase in phytoplankton and becomes increasingly important for phytoplankton response under climate change in the Southern Ocean.

Tianfei Xue et al.

Status: open (extended)

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  • RC1: 'Comment on bg-2023-171', Anonymous Referee #1, 19 Oct 2023 reply

Tianfei Xue et al.

Tianfei Xue et al.


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Short summary
Phytoplankton plays a crucial role in marine ecosystems. However, climate change's impact on phytoplankton biomass remains uncertain, particularly in the Southern Ocean. In this region, phytoplankton biomass within the water column is likely to remain stable in response to climate change, as supported by models. This stability arises from a shallower mixed layer, favoring phytoplankton growth but also increasing zooplankton grazing due to phytoplankton concentration near the surface.