Eddy stirring and phytoplankton patchiness in the subarctic North Atlantic in late summer

Libe Washburn*, Brian M. Emery, Burton H. Jones, Daniel G. Ondercin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The spatial structure of phytoplankton distributions in the mesoscale eddy field of the North Atlantic (vicinity of 20°W, 59°N) was examined with a series of high resolution, towed transects. Data were obtained after the fall transition in August 1991 as part of the Marine Light-Mixed Layers (MLML) program. Measurements of chlorophyll fluorescence (CF) and the beam attenuation coefficient anomaly (Δc490) show that chlorophyll and particles are confined to the surface mixed layer and seasonal pycnocline. Two water masses account for the potential temperature-salinity (θ-s) structure in the region: North Atlantic Central Water from the sub-tropical gyre and Sub-Arctic Intermediate Water from the sub-polar gyre. These water masses carry distinct particle distributions based on measurements of CF and Δc490. Spatial distributions of CF and S in the mixed layer are spatially coherent for horizontal wavenumbers k less than a transition wavenumber k(t) ≃ 0.15 cycles km-1 (transition wavelength λ(t)= k(t)/-1 ≃ 7 km). The horizontal distribution of θ in the mixed layer is uncorrelated with S. Autospectra of θ, S, CF, and Δc490 vary approximately as k-2 for k less than k(t). For k ≥ k(t), CF and Δc490 decrease approximately as k-3, while S spectra continue as k-2. These observations are consistent with physical control of phytoplankton distributions for k < k(t) by eddy advection. They are consistent with control by non-conservative biological processes for k ≥ k(t). This contradicts some theoretical models of chlorophyll spectra, which predict physical control of phytoplankton distributions above k(t) and biological control below. The contradiction may arise because the scales of variance sources assumed in the models are not consistent with observed scales in the MLML region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1411-1439
Number of pages29
JournalDeep-Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1998
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We benefitted from helpful discussions with several people during this research, including Darius Stramski, Robert Maffione, Kurt Mobley, Tommy Dickey, John Marra, Dian Gifford, and David Siegel. David Menzes, Phillip Handley and Peter Henschke provided helpful assistance at sea. Al Plueddemann and Bob Weller provided the mooring data. We also thank Jim Velky and George Gilpatrick, who contributed to the successful operation of the Paravane. This research was supported by the Office of Naval Research as part of the Marine Light-Mixed Layers Accelerated Research Initiative.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


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