Control of a phytoplankton bloom by wind-driven vertical mixing and light availability

Joanne E. Hopkins, Matthew R. Palmer, Alex J. Poulton, Anna E. Hickman, Jonathan Sharples

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
25 Downloads (Pure)


The balance of physical and biological processes governing phytoplankton growth rates and the accumulation of biomass is widely debated in the literature, notably during the winter–spring transition. Here we show, in a temperate shelf sea that variability in the depth of the actively mixing surface layer is the leading order control. During a 2‐week period preceding the peak of the spring bloom we observe two distinct regimes; first, growth within the euphotic zone during the day and re‐distribution of new biomass to the seasonal pycnocline at night by convective mixing; then, more rapid biomass accumulation trapped within a shallower, wind‐driven actively mixing layer that was decoupled from the pycnocline below. Our observations of the bloom in the Celtic Sea, Northwest European Shelf, were made using ocean gliders and include measurements of the dissipation of turbulent kinetic energy. A 1‐D phytoplankton growth model driven by our measurements of dissipation and incident irradiance replicates the observed bloom and reinforces the conclusion that physical processes that mediate light availability were key. Day‐to‐day variability in cloud cover and the ability of phytoplankton to acclimate to their light environment were also important factors in determining growth rates, and the timing of the biomass peak. Our results emphasize the need for accurate turbulent mixing parameterizations in coupled hydrodynamic‐ecosystem models. Our findings are applicable to any region where wind‐driven mixing can modify nutrient and light availability, especially across subpolar shelves in the northern hemisphere where light rather than nutrients is typically the limiting factor on phytoplankton growth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1926-1949
Number of pages24
JournalLimnology and Oceanography
Issue number5
Early online date7 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


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