High temporal and spatial variability of dissolved oxygen and pH in a nearshore California kelp forest

Predicting consequences of ocean deoxygenation and ocean acidification for nearshore marine ecosystems requires baseline dissolved oxygen (DO) and carbonate chemistry data that are both high-frequency and high-quality. Such data allow accurate assessment of environmental variability and present-day organism exposure regimes. In this study, scales of DO and pH variability were characterized over one year in a nearshore, kelp forest ecosystem in the Southern California Bight. DO and pH were strongly, positively correlated revealing that organisms on this upwelling shelf are not only exposed to low pH but also low DO. The dominant temporal scale of DO and pH variability occurred on semidiurnal, diurnal and event (days–weeks) time scales. Daily ranges in DO and pH at 7 m water depth (13 mab) could be as large as 220 μmol kg−1 and 0.36 units, respectively. This range is much greater than the expected decreases in pH in the open ocean by the year 2100. Sources of pH and DO variation include photosynthesis within the kelp forest ecosystem, which can elevate DO and pH by up to 60 μmol kg−1 and 0.1 units over one week following the intrusion of high-density, nutrient-rich water. Accordingly, highly productive macrophyte-based ecosystems could serve as deoxygenation and acidification refugia by acting to elevate DO and pH relative to surrounding waters. DO and pH exhibited greater spatial variation over a 10 m increase in water depth (from 7 to 17 m) than along a 5-km stretch of shelf in a cross-shore or alongshore direction. Over a three-month time period mean DO and pH at 17-m water depth were 168 μmol kg−1 and 7.87, respectively. These values represent a 35% decrease in mean DO and 37% increase in [H+] relative to surface waters. High-frequency variation was also reduced at depth. The mean daily range in DO and pH was 39% and 37% less, respectively, at 17-m water depth relative to the surface. As a consequence, the exposure history of an organism is largely a function of its depth of occurrence within the kelp forest. These findings raise the possibility that the benthic communities along eastern boundary current systems are currently acclimatized and adapted to natural, variable, and low DO and pH. Future exposure of coastal California populations to low DO and pH may increase as upwelling intensifies and hypoxic boundaries shoal, compressing habitats and challenging the physiological capacity of intolerant species.

Frieder C. A., Nam S. H., Martz T. R., & Levin L. A., 2012. High temporal and spatial variability of dissolved oxygen and pH in a nearshore California kelp forest. Biogeosciences Discussions 9(3):4099-4132. Article.

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