Coastal eutrophication drives acidification, oxygen loss, and ecosystem change in a major oceanic upwelling system

Significance

We conduct a modeling study of the effects of enhanced coastal nutrient export from human activities on the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen cycles of the Southern California Bight, in the context of emerging global climate change. The modeling approach used is innovative in the breadth of its scope, and simulations are generally consistent with local measurements. The human effects on the regional ecosystem from coastal nitrogen inputs of 23 million people are substantial, leading to significant increases in the photosynthesis and biomass of phytoplankton and increased oxygen loss and acidification of the water column. These changes are likely to compress habitat for a variety of marine organisms, with cascading ecological effects and implications for marine resources and water-quality management.

Abstract

Global change is leading to warming, acidification, and oxygen loss in the ocean. In the Southern California Bight, an eastern boundary upwelling system, these stressors are exacerbated by the localized discharge of anthropogenically enhanced nutrients from a coastal population of 23 million people. Here, we use simulations with a high-resolution, physical–biogeochemical model to quantify the link between terrestrial and atmospheric nutrients, organic matter, and carbon inputs and biogeochemical change in the coastal waters of the Southern California Bight. The model is forced by large-scale climatic drivers and a reconstruction of local inputs via rivers, wastewater outfalls, and atmospheric deposition; it captures the fine scales of ocean circulation along the shelf; and it is validated against a large collection of physical and biogeochemical observations. Local land-based and atmospheric inputs, enhanced by anthropogenic sources, drive a 79% increase in phytoplankton biomass, a 23% increase in primary production, and a nearly 44% increase in subsurface respiration rates along the coast in summer, reshaping the biogeochemistry of the Southern California Bight. Seasonal reductions in subsurface oxygen, pH, and aragonite saturation state, by up to 50 mmol m−3, 0.09, and 0.47, respectively, rival or exceed the global open-ocean oxygen loss and acidification since the preindustrial period. The biological effects of these changes on local fisheries, proliferation of harmful algal blooms, water clarity, and submerged aquatic vegetation have yet to be fully explored.

Kessouri F., McWilliams J. C., Bianchi D., Sutula M., Renault L., Deutsch C., Feely R. A., McLaughlin K., Ho M., Howard E. M., Bednaršekv N., Damien P., Molemaker J. & Weisberg S. B., 2021. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(21): e2018856118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2018856118. Article.

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