Observing and modelling phytoplankton community structure in the North Sea

David A. Ford, Johan van der Molen, Kieran Hyder, John Bacon, Rosa Barciela, Veronique Creach, Robert McEwan, Piet Ruardij, Rodney Forster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Phytoplankton form the base of the marine food chain, and knowledge of phytoplankton community structure is fundamental when assessing marine biodiversity. Policy makers and other users require information on marine biodiversity and other aspects of the marine environment for the North Sea, a highly productive European shelf sea. This information must come from a combination of observations and models, but currently the coastal ocean is greatly under-sampled for phytoplankton data, and outputs of phytoplankton community structure from models are therefore not yet frequently validated. This study presents a novel set of in situ observations of phytoplankton community structure for the North Sea using accessory pigment analysis. The observations allow a good understanding of the patterns of surface phytoplankton biomass and community structure in the North Sea for the observed months of August 2010 and 2011. Two physical-biogeochemical ocean models, the biogeochemical components of which are different variants of the widely used European Regional Seas Ecosystem Model (ERSEM), were then validated against these and other observations. Both models were a good match for sea surface temperature observations, and a reasonable match for remotely sensed ocean colour observations. However, the two models displayed very different phytoplankton community structures, with one better matching the in situ observations than the other. Nonetheless, both models shared some similarities with the observations in terms of spatial features and inter-annual variability. An initial comparison of the formulations and parameterizations of the two models suggests that diversity between the parameter settings of model phytoplankton functional types, along with formulations which promote a greater sensitivity to changes in light and nutrients, is key to capturing the observed phytoplankton community structure. These findings will help inform future model development, which should be coupled with detailed validation studies, in order to help facilitate the wider application of marine biogeochemical modelling to user and policy needs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1419-1444
Number of pages26
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 21 Mar 2017

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