Satellite estimates of net community production indicate predominance of net autotrophy in the Atlantic Ocean

Gavin Tilstone, Yu-yuan Xie, Carol Robinson, Pablo Serret, Dionysios E. Raitsos, Timothy Powell, Maria Aranguren-Gassis, E. Elena Garcia-Martin, Vassilis Kitidis

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23 Citations (Scopus)


There is ongoing debate as to whether the oligotrophic ocean is predominantly net autotrophic and acts as a CO2 sink, or net heterotrophic and therefore acts as a CO2 source to the atmosphere. This quantification is challenging, both spatially and temporally, due to the sparseness of measurements. There has been a concerted effort to derive accurate estimates of phytoplankton photosynthesis and primary production from satellite data to fill these gaps; however there have been few satellite estimates of net community production (NCP). In this paper, we compare a number of empirical approaches to estimate NCP from satellite data with in vitro measurements of changes in dissolved O2 concentration at 295 stations in the N and S Atlantic Ocean (including the Antarctic), Greenland and Mediterranean Seas. Algorithms based on power laws between NCP and particulate organic carbon production (POC) derived from 14C uptake tend to overestimate NCP at negative values and underestimate at positive values. An algorithm that includes sea surface temperature (SST) in the power function of NCP and 14C POC has the lowest bias and root-mean square error compared with in vitro measured NCP and is the most accurate algorithm for the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly a 13 year time series of NCP was generated using this algorithm with SeaWiFS data to assess changes over time in different regions and in relation to climate variability. The North Atlantic subtropical and tropical Gyres (NATL) were predominantly net autotrophic from 1998 to 2010 except for boreal autumn/winter, suggesting that the northern hemisphere has remained a net sink for CO2 during this period. The South Atlantic sub-tropical Gyre (SATL) fluctuated from being net autotrophic in austral spring-summer, to net heterotrophic in austral autumn–winter. Recent decadal trends suggest that the SATL is becoming more of a CO2 source. Over the Atlantic basin, the percentage of satellite pixels with negative NCP was 27%, with the largest contributions from the NATL and SATL during boreal and austral autumn–winter, respectively. Variations in NCP in the northern and southern hemispheres were correlated with climate indices. Negative correlations between NCP and the multivariate ENSO index (MEI) occurred in the SATL, which explained up to 60% of the variability in NCP. Similarly there was a negative correlation between NCP and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) in the Southern Sub-Tropical Convergence Zone (SSTC), which explained 90% of the variability. There were also positive correlations with NAO in the Canary Current Coastal Upwelling (CNRY) and Western Tropical Atlantic (WTRA) which explained 80% and 60% of the variability in each province, respectively. MEI and NAO seem to play a role in modifying phases of net autotrophy and heterotrophy in the Atlantic Ocean.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-269
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Early online date9 May 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Net community production
  • Respiration
  • Photosynthesis
  • Multivariate ENSO Index
  • North Atlantic Oscillation
  • Pacific Decadal Oscillation

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