Assessing the role of pH in determining water column nitrification rates in a coastal system

Ocean acidification is predicted to impact the nitrogen cycle in a variety of ways. Specifically, manipulations of water column pH have shown that nitrification, the microbial conversion of ammonium to nitrate, is inhibited at low pH. A decrease in nitrification may impact phytoplankton composition and production, denitrification, and the production of nitrous oxide. We compiled an existing unique data set of concurrent water column nitrification rates and water column pH values from a temperate New England estuary (Narragansett Bay, RI, USA). Contrary to the current hypothesis, we found that nitrification rates were highest at low pH and significantly (P = 0.0031) lower at high water column pH. In this study, pH varied up to 0.85 units, 20% more than the maximum predicted ocean pH decrease of 0.7 units. These results highlight that nitrifying organisms in coastal systems tolerate a wide range of pH values. Moreover, the degree of negative correlation with pH may depend on site-specific environmental conditions. Combined, these findings indicate that the current hypothesis of the negative impacts of ocean acidification on nitrification, at least for the coastal ocean, might need reevaluation.

Fulweiler R. W., Emery H. E., Heiss E. M., & Berounsky V. M., in press. Assessing the role of pH in determining water column nitrification rates in a coastal system. Estuaries and Coasts doi:10.1007/s12237-011-9432-4. Article (subscription required).


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