Articles | Volume 11, issue 2
Research article
13 Mar 2015
Research article |  | 13 Mar 2015

A geographical and seasonal comparison of nitrogen uptake by phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean

R. Philibert, H. Waldron, and D. Clark

Abstract. The impact of light and nutrients (such as silicate and iron) availability on nitrogen uptake and primary production vary seasonally and regionally in the Southern Ocean. The seasonal cycle of nitrogen uptake by phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean is not fully resolved over an annual scale due to the lack of winter in situ measurements. In this study, nitrate and ammonium uptake rates were measured using 15N tracers during a winter cruise in July 2012 and a summer cruise in February–March 2013. The winter cruise consisted of two legs: leg 1 extended from Cape Town to the ice margin along the GoodHope line and leg 2 stretched from the ice margin to Marion Island. The summer cruise was mostly focused on the subantarctic zone of the Atlantic sector. In winter, nitrogen uptake rates were measured at 55 and 1% of the surface photosynthetically active radiation (sPAR). The summer uptake rates were measured at four light depths corresponding to 55, 30, 10 and 3% sPAR. The integrated nitrate uptake rates during the winter cruise ranged from 0.17 to 5.20 mmol N m−2 d−1 (average 1.14 mmol N m−2 d−1) while the ammonium uptake rates ranged from 0.60 to 32.86 mmol N m−2 d−1 (average 6.73 mmol N m−2 d−1). During the summer cruise, the mean-integrated nitrate uptake rate was 0.20 mmol N m−2 d−1 with a range between 0.10 and 0.38 mmol N m−2 d−1. The integrated ammonium uptake rate averaged 4.39 mmol N m−2 d−1 and ranged from 1.12 to 9.05 mmol N m−2 d−1.

The factors controlling nitrogen uptake in winter and summer were investigated. During the winter cruise, it was found that the different nitrogen uptake regimes were not separated by the fronts of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). Light (in terms of day length) and ammonium concentration had the most influence on the nitrogen uptake. In the summer, increases in the mixed layer depth (MLD) resulted in increased nitrogen uptake rates. This suggests that the increases in the MLD could be alleviating nutrient limitations experienced by the phytoplankton at the end of summer.

Short summary
Phytoplankton contribute to the regulation of the Earth's climate. In this study, we investigated the factors which affect the amount of nitrogen that phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean are able to use for their growth. We collected data during a winter cruise and a summer cruise. We found that in winter, day light and the amount of ammonium (a nitrogenous nutrient) were the two most important factors. In summer, it seems that the influx of nutrients (such as iron) plays a major role.