National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2023

Subtropical gyre nutrient cycling: Insights from a nutrient-ratio budget method

Xiang, Y., P.D. Quay, R.E. Sonnerup, and A.J. Fassbender

Geophys. Res. Lett., 50(13), e2023GL103213, doi: 10.1029/2023GL103213, View open access article online at AGU/Wiley (external link) (2023)

We use a nutrient-ratio budget method to investigate the relative importance of different nutrient source and sink terms at time-series Station ALOHA and Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) in the North Pacific and North Atlantic subtropical gyres, respectively. At mean state conditions over annual and multi-year time scales, vertical phosphate *** supply from the subsurface accounts for ∼60% of the total phosphorus supply at both sites. Dissolved organic matter transport and zooplankton excretion are more important phosphorous export pathways than sinking particles at Station ALOHA and BATS. The nutrient-ratio budget approach provides quantitative, observation-based constraints on nutrient sources and sinks in the surface ocean, which helps improve our understanding of the biological carbon pump in oligotrophic oceans.

Plain Language Summary. In this study, we explore the cycling of nutrients that support primary production in the surface ocean and its subsequent export to depth using observed elemental ratios of nitrogen to phosphorus for various nutrient sources and sinks. We use nutrient observations from long-term oceanographic time-series studies at Station ALOHA near Hawaii and the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study near Bermuda. We assume that both stations are under conditions of steady state in which nutrient concentrations are not changing over long time periods, and therefore, that the nitrogen-to-phosphorus ratio between inputs and outputs should be balanced. We apply a mathematical model to estimate the relative contribution of each input and output term. Our results suggest that nutrient input is driven primarily by the vertical transport of subsurface water at both study sites. Nutrient output (loss) is driven by the gravitational sinking of large particles, the downward mixing of dissolved constituents, and the active transport of migrant animals. The loss due to the latter two processes is more important in magnitude. Our simple methodology provides quantitative, observational constraints of nutrient sources and sinks to the upper ocean, contributing improved understanding of the biological carbon pump in the oligotrophic subtropical ocean.

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