Quantification of the dominant drivers of acidification in the coastal Mid-Atlantic Bight


In shallow coastal shelves like the Mid-Atlantic Bight (MAB), ocean acidification due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is compounded by highly variable coastal processes including riverine freshwater inputs, nutrient loading, biogeochemical influence, coastal currents and water mass mixing, and seasonal transitions in physical parameters. Past deconstructions of carbonate system drivers in the MAB have focused on nearshore zones or single season data, and thus lack the spatial and temporal resolution required to assess impacts to important species occupying the shelf. Deconstructing highly resolved data collected during four seasonal Slocum glider deployments in the MAB, this study uses a Taylor Series decomposition to quantify the influence of temperature, salinity, biogeochemical activity, and water mass mixing on pH and aragonite saturation state from sea surface to bottom. Results show that water mass mixing and biogeochemical activity were the most significant drivers of the carbonate system in the MAB. Nearshore water was more acidic year-round due to riverine freshwater input, but photosynthesis reduced acidity at certain depths and times. Water mass mixing increased acidity in bottom water on the shelf, particularly in summer. Gulf Stream intrusions at the shelf break during fall acted to mitigate acidification on the shelf in habitats occupied by carbonate-bearing organisms. The relationships quantified here can be used to improve biogeochemical forecast models and determine habitat suitability for commercially important fin and shellfish species residing in the MAB.

Key Points

  • Water mass mixing and biogeochemical activity are the major drivers of seasonal carbonate system dynamics in the MAB
  • Water mass mixing has opposing effects on carbonate chemistry in the nearshore and at the continental shelf break

Plain Language Summary

The coastal ocean is experiencing changes in chemistry due to human activities, including carbon dioxide emissions, nutrient runoff, and seasonal changes in temperature, salinity, and coastal currents. These drivers have been studied close to shore and/or only during single seasons, leaving a gap in our understanding of seasonal changes across the entire economically important shelf region. Here, we use high-resolution data collected by a deep-sea robot that measures chemistry from ocean surface to the sea floor. We determined the importance of four key influences (temperature, salinity, water mass mixing, and biological activity) on changes in coastal chemistry over the course of a year. We found that the most important driver of shelf chemistry was mixing of freshwater at the coast and warm, salty water at the edge of the shelf. Biological activity was a secondary influence, which caused smaller scale changes in chemistry. These results can help to predict how coastal chemistry might change in the future, so that we can prepare for the effects on economically important animals and industries.

Wright-Fairbanks E. K. & Saba G. K., 2022. Quantification of the dominant drivers of acidification in the coastal Mid-Atlantic Bight. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans 127: e2022JC018833. doi: 10.1029/2022JC018833. Article.

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