Multi-nutrient, multi-group model of present and future oceanic phytoplankton communities

E. Litchman, C. A. Klausmeier, J. R. Miller, O. M. Schofield, P. G. Falkowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

145 Scopus citations


Phytoplankton community composition profoundly affects patterns of nutrient cycling and the dynamics of marine food webs; therefore predicting present and future phytoplankton community structure is crucial to understand how ocean ecosystems respond to physical forcing and nutrient limitations. We develop a mechanistic model of phytoplankton communities that includes multiple taxonomic groups (diatoms, coccolithophores and prasinophytes), nutrients (nitrate, ammonium, phosphate, silicate and iron), light, and a generalist zooplankton grazer. Each taxonomic group was parameterized based on an extensive literature survey. We test the model at two contrasting sites in the modern ocean, the North Atlantic (North Atlantic Bloom Experiment, NABE) and subarctic North Pacific (ocean station Papa, OSP). The model successfully predicts general patterns of community composition and succession at both sites: In the North Atlantic, the model predicts a spring diatom bloom, followed by coccolithophore and prasinophyte blooms later in the season. In the North Pacific, the model reproduces the low chlorophyll community dominated by prasinophytes and coccolithophores, with low total biomass variability and high nutrient concentrations throughout the year. Sensitivity analysis revealed that the identity of the most sensitive parameters and the range of acceptable parameters differed between the two sites. We then use the model to predict community reorganization under different global change scenarios: a later onset and extended duration of stratification, with shallower mixed layer depths due to increased greenhouse gas concentrations; increase in deep water nitrogen; decrease in deep water phosphorus and increase or decrease in iron concentration. To estimate uncertainty in our predictions, we used a Monte Carlo sampling of the parameter space where future scenarios were run using parameter combinations that produced acceptable modern day outcomes and the robust-ness of the predictions was determined. Change in the onset and duration of stratification altered the timing and the magnitude of the spring diatom bloom in the North Atlantic and increased total phytoplankton and zooplankton biomass in the North Pacific. Changes in nutrient concentrations in some cases changed dominance patterns of major groups, as well as total chlorophyll and Zooplankton biomass. Based on these scenarios, our model suggests that global environmental change will inevitably alter phytoplankton community structure and potentially impact global biogeochemical cycles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)585-606
Number of pages22
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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