Seasonal dynamics of the carbonate system under complex circulation schemes on a large continental shelf: the northern South China Sea


  • 1. The NSCS shelf carbonate system shows strong seasonality with two distinct regimes between the inner-shelf and the mid-outer shelf.
  • 2. The seasonal dynamics of sea surface pCO2 and Ωarag on the mid-outer shelf highlight the influence of temperature effect and the seasonal cycle of mixed layer depth (MLD), while the Pearl River Plume has a profound effect in summer on the mid-shelf.
  • 3. The spatial dynamics of sea surface pCO2 and Ωarag on the inner-shelf feature the influence of China Coastal Current (CCC) in winter and coastal upwelling in summer.


Based on large-scale surveys conducted during all four seasons from 2009-2011, we investigated the carbonate systems on the northern South China Sea (NSCS) shelf featuring much higher variations in both seasonality and spatiality on its inner-shelf (< 40 m) as compared to the areas on the mid-outer shelf (> 40 m). The most notable forcing on the mid-outer shelf include the intrusion of Kuroshio water leading to high surface salinity and high total alkalinity (TA) in winter, the impact of which is however limited to the northeastern part of the NSCS. The Pearl River Plume (PRP), a prominent feature in summer also has profound impact on the carbonate system on the mid-outer shelf. On the inner-shelf, the carbonate system was much more dynamic, featuring complex modulations by coastal upwelling associated with relatively high dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and TA in summer, and the China Coastal Current (CCC) of high DIC in winter, spring and fall. In addition, the influences of coastal plume water from local rivers were identifiable on the inner-shelf in both winter and spring.

Such distinction between inner-shelf and mid-outer shelf in the dynamics of DIC, the partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2) and saturation state index of aragonite (Ωarag) is also obvious. On the mid-outer shelf, the salinity normalized DIC (nDIC) fluctuated seasonally between 1974±9 and 2001±9 µmol kg-1. The decline of nDIC from winter to spring and spring to summer mainly results from CO2 outgassing, while the increase in nDIC from summer to fall and from fall to winter is due to entrainment of the carbon-enriched subsurface water. The pCO2 increases from a minimum of 344±9 μatm in winter to a maximum of 387±14 μatm in spring, which is in phase with temperature changes and the fluctuations of nDIC. The Ωarag ranged 3.28-3.68 with the highest value in summer but lowest value in winter, which is consistent with the seasonal cycles of the nDIC. Nearshore on the inner-shelf influenced by the CCC water in winter and the mid-outer shelf influenced by the PRP in summer, the spatial dynamics of sea surface pCO2 and Ωarag are modulated by both temperature and the water mass mixing between CCC, PRP, and shelf waters. Here, the high biological uptake sustained by nutrients in the CCC and PRP drawdown the pCO2 and augmented the Ωarag, while the CO2 sequestration enhanced the sea surface pCO2 but drawdown the Ωarag.

Yang W., Guo X., Cao Z., Xu Y., Wang L., Guo L., Huang T., Li Y., Xu Y., Gan J. & Dai M., 2021. Seasonal dynamics of the carbonate system under complex circulation schemes on a large continental shelf: the northern South China Sea. Progress in Oceanography: 102630. doi: 10.1016/j.pocean.2021.102630. Article (subscription required).

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