Date of Award


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MS)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


Martin T Auer


The seasonal appearance of a deep chlorophyll maximum (DCM) in Lake Superior is a striking phenomenon that is widely observed; however its mechanisms of formation and maintenance are not well understood. As this phenomenon may be the reflection of an ecological driver, or a driver itself, a lack of understanding its driving forces limits the ability to accurately predict and manage changes in this ecosystem. Key mechanisms generally associated with DCM dynamics (i.e. ecological, physiological and physical phenomena) are examined individually and in concert to establish their role. First the prevailing paradigm, “the DCM is a great place to live”, is analyzed through an integration of the results of laboratory experiments and field measurements. The analysis indicates that growth at this depth is severely restricted and thus not able to explain the full magnitude of this phenomenon. Additional contributing mechanisms like photoadaptation, settling and grazing are reviewed with a one-dimensional mathematical model of chlorophyll and particulate organic carbon.

Settling has the strongest impact on the formation and maintenance of the DCM, transporting biomass to the metalimnion and resulting in the accumulation of algae, i.e. a peak in the particulate organic carbon profile. Subsequently, shade adaptation becomes manifest as a chlorophyll maximum deeper in the water column where light conditions particularly favor the process. Shade adaptation mediates the magnitude, shape and vertical position of the chlorophyll peak. Growth at DCM depth shows only a marginal contribution, while grazing has an adverse effect on the extent of the DCM. The observed separation of the carbon biomass and chlorophyll maximum should caution scientists to equate the DCM with a large nutrient pool that is available to higher trophic levels. The ecological significance of the DCM should not be separated from the underlying carbon dynamics. When evaluated in its entirety, the DCM becomes the projected image of a structure that remains elusive to measure but represents the foundation of all higher trophic levels. These results also offer guidance in examine ecosystem perturbations such as climate change. For example, warming would be expected to prolong the period of thermal stratification, extending the late summer period of suboptimal (phosphorus-limited) growth and attendant transport of phytoplankton to the metalimnion. This reduction in epilimnetic algal production would decrease the supply of algae to the metalimnion, possibly reducing the supply of prey to the grazer community. This work demonstrates the value of modeling to challenge and advance our understanding of ecosystem dynamics, steps vital to reliable testing of management alternatives.