Articles | Volume 11, issue 5
Research article
25 Sep 2015
Research article |  | 25 Sep 2015

Spatio-temporal variability of micro-, nano- and pico-phytoplankton in the Mediterranean Sea from satellite ocean colour data of SeaWiFS

M. Sammartino, A. Di Cicco, S. Marullo, and R. Santoleri

Abstract. The seasonal and year-to-year variability of the phytoplankton size class (PSC) spatial distribution has been examined in the Mediterranean Sea by using the entire time series of Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) space observations (1998–2010). Daily maps of PSCs have been determined using an empirical model based on a synoptic relationship between surface chlorophyll a and diagnostic pigments referred to different taxonomic groups. The analysis of micro-, nano- and pico-phytoplankton satellite time series (1998–2010) describes, quantitatively, the algal assemblage structure over the basin and reveals that the main contribution to chlorophyll a in most of the Mediterranean Sea comes from the pico-phytoplankton component, especially in nutrient-poor environments. Regions with different and peculiar features are the Northwestern Mediterranean Sea, the Alborán Sea and several coastal areas, such as the North Adriatic Sea. In these areas, local interactions between physical and biological components modulate the composition of the three phytoplankton size classes. It results that, during the spring bloom season, micro-phytoplankton dominates in areas of intense vertical winter mixing and deep/intermediate water formation, while in coastal areas micro-phytoplankton dominates in all seasons because of the nutrient supply from the terrestrial inputs. In the Alborán Sea, where the Atlantic inflow modulates the nutrient availability, any predominance of one class over the other two has been observed. The nano-phytoplankton component instead remains widespread over the entire basin along the year, and its contribution to chlorophyll a is of the order of 30–40 %. The largest inter-annual signal occurs in the Northwestern Mediterranean Sea, driven by the year-to-year variation in intensity and extension of the spring bloom, followed by the Alborán Sea, in which the inter-annual variability is strongly modulated by the Atlantic inflow. In absence of sufficient in situ data of community composition, the satellite-based analysis demonstrated that pico-, nano- and micro-phytoplankton classes often coexist. The predominance of one group over the other ones is strongly dependent on the physical and biological processes occurring at the mesoscale. These processes directly influence the nutrient and light availability, which are the principal forcing for the algae growth.

Short summary
We describe the seasonal and year-to-year variability of the spatial distribution of the phytoplankton size classes (PSCs) in the Mediterranean Sea using the time series of Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) observations (1998 to 2010). We used a chlorophyll-a-based model to estimate the phytoplankton composition. Our results, based on ocean colour data, confirm the seasonal and inter-annual pattern of the phytoplankton community observed from in situ data and in previous studies.