Light, ammonium, pH, and phytoplankton competition as environmental factors controlling nitrification

The biogeochemical cycling of nitrogen (N) plays a critical role in supporting marine ecosystems and controlling primary production. Nitrification, the oxidation of ammonia (NH3) by microorganisms, is an important process in the marine N cycle, supplying nitrate (NO3−), the primary source of N that fuels new phytoplankton growth, and the primary substrate for the microbial process of denitrification. Understanding nitrification in the Chukchi Sea, the shallow sea overlying the continental shelf north of Alaska and the Bering Strait, is particularly important as phytoplankton growth there has been shown to be limited by N. However, the controls on nitrification in the water column and potential effects of climate change remain unknown. This study seeks to characterize the controls on nitrification in the Chukchi Sea. We found light to be a strong control on nitrification rates. Nitrification was undetectable at light levels above 23 μmol photons m−2 s−1. Subsequently, sea ice concentration was related to nitrification, with rates being higher at stations with high ice cover where light transmission to the water column was reduced. High ammonium (NH4+) concentrations also enhanced nitrification, suggesting that nitrifying organisms were substrate-limited, likely due to competition for NH4+ from phytoplankton. Unlike previous experimental studies, we found that nitrification rates were higher under low pH conditions. As the effects of ocean acidification and warming disproportionately impact the Arctic, nitrification rates will undoubtedly be affected. Our results will help guide future studies on potential implications of climate change on the biogeochemistry of N in the Chukchi Sea.

Proctor C., Coupel P., Casciotti K., Tremblay J.-E., Zakem E., Arrigo K. & Mills M. M., in press. Light, ammonium, pH, and phytoplankton competition as environmental factors controlling nitrification. Limnology and Oceanography. Article (subscription required).

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