Cascading effects augment the direct impact of CO2 on phytoplankton growth in a biogeochemical model

Atmospheric and oceanic CO2 concentrations are rising at an unprecedented rate. Laboratory studies indicate a positive effect of rising CO2 on phytoplankton growth until an optimum is reached, after which the negative impact of accompanying acidification dominates. Here, we implemented carbonate system sensitivities of phytoplankton growth into our global biogeochemical model FESOM-REcoM and accounted explicitly for coccolithophores as the group most sensitive to CO2. In idealized simulations in which solely the atmospheric CO2 mixing ratio was modified, changes in competitive fitness and biomass are not only caused by the direct effects of CO2, but also by indirect effects via nutrient and light limitation as well as grazing. These cascading effects can both amplify or dampen phytoplankton responses to changing ocean pCO2 levels. For example, coccolithophore growth is negatively affected both directly by future pCO2 and indirectly by changes in light limitation, but these effects are compensated by a weakened nutrient limitation resulting from the decrease in small-phytoplankton biomass. In the Southern Ocean, future pCO2 decreases small-phytoplankton biomass and hereby the preferred prey of zooplankton, which reduces the grazing pressure on diatoms and allows them to proliferate more strongly. In simulations that encompass CO2-driven warming and acidification, our model reveals that recent observed changes in North Atlantic coccolithophore biomass are driven primarily by warming and not by CO2. Our results highlight that CO2 can change the effects of other environmental drivers on phytoplankton growth, and that cascading effects may play an important role in projections of future net primary production.

Seifert M., Nissen C., Rost B. & Hauck J., 2022. Cascading effects augment the direct impact of CO2 on phytoplankton growth in a biogeochemical model. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 10(1): 00104. doi: 10.1525/elementa.2021.00104. Article.

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