Collaborative Research: Impacts of Eddies and Mixing on Plankton Community Structure and Biogeochemical Cycling in the Sargasso Sea

Project Details



OCE-0241310 / OCE-0241399 / OCE-0241023 / OCE-0241340 / OCE-0241011

The currents, fronts and eddies that comprise the oceanic mesoscale, sometimes referred to as the 'internal weather of the sea,' are highly energetic and ubiquitous features of ocean circulation. Dynamical consequences of these phenomena include perturbation of the chemical and biological environment that can dramatically impact biogeochemical cycling in the ocean. The processes that regulate this response are extraordinarily complex, challenging us to understand how the physical, biological and chemical processes are functionally related.

Recent evidence suggests that mesoscale eddies are an important nutrient transport mechanism in the oligotrophic waters of the main subtropical gyres. Numerical simulations and satellite-based statistical estimates indicate that the magnitude of the eddy-driven nutrient flux could be sufficient to balance geochemical estimates of new production, which far exceed that which can be sustained by traditional mechanisms of nutrient supply. Relatively few direct observations of this process are available, owing to the spatial and temporal intermittency of the events that drive it. Available data demonstrate that isopycnal displacements associated with certain types of eddies can transport nutrients into the euphotic zone, resulting in the accumulation of chlorophyll in the overlying waters. However, the nature of the biological response and its impact on coupled biogeochemical cycles and export has yet to be elucidated. Furthermore, the relationship between eddy-induced upwelling and diapycnal mixing in and below the mixed layer remains obscure; the strength of this interaction determines the degree to which the eddy-driven effects are irreversible and thereby effect a net biogeochemical flux.

In this project, a team of oceanographic researchers will document phytoplankton physiological response, changes in community structure, export and the biogeochemical ramifications of eddy-induced upwelling and mixing in the Sargasso Sea. Target features will be identified prior to field deployment via remote sensing. High-resolution surveys will be undertaken with an undulating towed instrument package that includes a Fast Repetition Rate Fluorometer. This suite of instruments will facilitate simultaneous assessment of photosynthetic parameters and the species assemblage of phytoplankton and zooplankton. These measurements will be accompanied by discrete water sampling of biogeochemical properties in sets of stations along cross sections of the chosen features. Export will be measured at selected locations within the mesoscale structure. Rates of mixing between the surface mixed layer and waters at the base of the euphotic zone will be inferred from the Helium flux gauge and measured directly with a sulfur hexafluoride tracer release. Taken together, these observations will be sufficient to test the hypothesis that eddy-induced upwelling increases photosynthetic rates, changes community structure and increases export from the euphotic zone, thereby playing an important role in biogeochemical cycling of the subtropical oceans.

The research will be carried out in a collaborative effort among ten principal investigators from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, Rutgers University, University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Miami. The work plan consists of two years of field observations followed by a final year of synthesis.

Effective start/end date7/1/039/30/07


  • National Science Foundation: $378,276.00


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