Phytoplankton size impact on export flux in the global ocean

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Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences


Efficiency of the biological pump of carbon to the deep ocean depends largely on biologically mediated export of carbon from the surface ocean and its remineralization with depth. Global satellite studies have primarily focused on chlorophyll concentration and net primary production (NPP) to understand the role of phytoplankton in these processes. Recent satellite retrievals of phytoplankton composition now allow for the size of phytoplankton cells to be considered. Here we improve understanding of phytoplankton size structure impacts on particle export, remineralization, and transfer. A global compilation of particulate organic carbon (POC) flux estimated from sediment traps and 234Th are utilized. Annual climatologies of NPP, percent microplankton, and POC flux at four time series locations and within biogeochemical provinces are constructed. Parameters that characterize POC flux versus depth (export flux ratio, labile fraction, and remineralization length scale) are fit for time series locations, biogeochemical provinces, and times of the year dominated by small and large phytoplankton cells where phytoplankton cell size show enough dynamic range over the annual cycle. Considering all data together, our findings support the idea of high export flux but low transfer efficiency in productive regions and vice versa for oligotrophic regions. However, when parsing by dominant size class, we find periods dominated by small cells to have both greater export flux efficiency and lower transfer efficiency than periods when large cells comprise a greater proportion of the phytoplankton community.

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Global Biogeochemical Cycles