Global distribution of summer chlorophyll blooms in the oligotrophic gyres

Cara Wilson and Xuemei Qiu

Progress in Oceanography, in press, 2008


Chlorophyll blooms consistently develop in the oligotrophic NE Pacific in late summer, isolated from land masses and sources of higher chlorophyll waters. These blooms are potentially driven by nitrogen fixation, or by vertically migrating phytoplankton, and a better understanding of their ubiquity could improve our estimate of the global nitrogen fixation rate. Here, global SeaWiFS chlorophyll data from 1997-2007 are examined to determine if similar blooms occur in other oligotrophic gyres. Our analysis revealed blooms in five other areas. Two of these are regions where blooms have been previously identified: the SW Pacific and off the southern tip of Madagascar. Previously unnoticed summer blooms were also identified in the NE and SW Atlantic and in a band along 10°S in the Indian Ocean. There is considerable variation in the intensity and frequency of blooms in the different regions, occurring the least frequently in the Atlantic Ocean. The blooms that develop along 10°S in the Indian Ocean are unique in that they are clearly associated with a hydrographic feature, the 10°S thermocline ridge, which explains the bloom within a conventional upwelling scenario. The environment and timing of the blooms, developing in oligotrophic waters in late summer, are conducive to both nitrogen fixers and vertically migrating phytoplankton, which require a relatively stable water column. However, the specific locations of the chlorophyll blooms generally do not coincide with areas of maximum levels of nitrogen fixation or Trichodesmium. The NE Pacific chlorophyll blooms develop in a region with a very high SiO4/NO3 ratio, where silicate will not be a limiting nutrient for diatoms. The blooms often develop between eddies, wrapping around the periphery of anti-cyclonic features. However none of the areas where the blooms develop have particularly high eddy-kinetic energy, from either a basin-scale or a mesoscale perspective, suggesting that other factors, such as interactions with a front or dynamics associated with the critical latitude, operate in conjunction with the eddy field to produce the observed blooms.

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