Sustenance of phytoplankton in the subpolar North Atlantic during the winter through patchiness Academic Article uri icon


  • This study investigates the influence of two factors that change the mixed layer depth and can potentially contribute to the phytoplankton sustenance over winter: 1) variability of air-sea fluxes and 2) three-dimensional processes arising from strong fronts. To study the role of these factors, we perform several three-dimensional numerical simulations forced with air-sea fluxes at different temporal averaging frequencies as well as different spatial resolutions. Results show that in the winter, when the average mixed layer is much deeper than the euphotic layer and the days are short, phytoplankton production is relatively insensitive to the high-frequency variability in air-sea fluxes. The duration of upper ocean stratification due to high-frequency variability in air-sea fluxes is short and hence has a small impact on phytoplankton production. On the other hand, slumping of fronts creates patchy, stratified, shallow regions that persist considerably longer than stratification caused by changes in air-sea fluxes. Simulations show that before spring warming, the average MLD with fronts is about 700 m shallower than the average MLD without fronts. Therefore, fronts increase the residence time of phytoplankton in the euphotic layer and contribute to phytoplankton growth. Results show that before the spring warming, the depth-integrated phytoplankton concentration is about twice as large as phytoplankton concentration when there are no fronts. Hence, fronts are important for setting the MLD and sustaining phytoplankton in the winter. Model results also show that higher numerical resolution leads to stronger restratification, shallower mixed layers, greater variability in the MLD and higher production of phytoplankton.