Christopher L. Follett, Stephanie Dutkiewicz, Gael Forget, B.B. Cael, Michael J. Follows (2021), Moving ecological and biogeochemical transitions across the North PacificLimnology and Oceanography, doi: 10.1002/lno.11763


In the North Pacific Ocean, nutrient-rich surface waters flow south from the subpolar gyre through a transitional region and into the subtropics. Along the way, nutrients are used, recycled, and exported, leading to lower biomass and a commensurate change in ecosystem structure moving southward. We focus on the region between the two gyres (the Transition Zone) using a coupled biophysical ocean model, remote sensing, floats, and cruise data to explore the nature of the physical, biogeochemical, and ecological fields in this region. Nonlinear interactions between biological processes and the meridional gradient in nutrient supply lead to sharp shifts across this zone. These transitions between a southern region with more uniform biological and biogeochemical properties and steep meridional gradients to the north are diagnosed from extrema in the first derivative of the properties with latitude. Some transitions like that for chlorophyll a (the transition zone chlorophyll front [TZCF]) experience large seasonal excursions while the location of the transitions in other properties moves very little. The seasonal shifts are not caused by changes in the horizontal flow field, but rather by the interaction of seasonal, depth-related, forcing with the mean latitudinal gradients. Focusing on the TZCF as a case study, we express its phase velocity in terms of vertical nutrient flux and internal ecosystem processes, demonstrating their nearly equal influence on its motion. This framework of propagating biogeochemical transitions can be systematically expanded to better understand the processes that structure ecosystems and biogeochemistry in the North Pacific and beyond.