The subtropical nutrient spiral Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • We present an extended series of observations and more comprehensive analysis of a tracer-based measure of new production in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda using the 3He flux gauge technique. The estimated annually averaged nitrate flux of 0.84 ± 0.26 mol m?2 yr?1 constitutes only that nitrate physically transported to the euphotic zone, not nitrogen from biological sources (e.g., nitrogen fixation or zooplankton migration). We show that the flux estimate is quantitatively consistent with other observations, including decade timescale evolution of the 3H + 3He inventory in the main thermocline and export production estimates. However, we argue that the flux cannot be supplied in the long term by local diapycnal or isopycnal processes. These considerations lead us to propose a three-dimensional pathway whereby nutrients remineralized within the main thermocline are returned to the seasonally accessible layers within the subtropical gyre. We describe this mechanism, which we call “the nutrient spiral,” as a sequence of steps where (1) nutrient-rich thermocline waters are entrained into the Gulf Stream, (2) enhanced diapycnal mixing moves nutrients upward onto lighter densities, (3) detrainment and enhanced isopycnal mixing injects these waters into the seasonally accessible layer of the gyre recirculation region, and (4) the nutrients become available to biota via eddy heaving and wintertime convection. The spiral is closed when nutrients are utilized, exported, and then remineralized within the thermocline. We present evidence regarding the characteristics of the spiral and discuss some implications of its operation within the biogeochemical cycle of the subtropical ocean.

publication date

  • December 2003