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Geophysical Research Letters








To assess phytoplankton nutritional status in seasonally oligotrophic waters of the southern Mid-Atlantic Bight, and the potential for rain to stimulate primary production in this region during summer, shipboard bioassay experiments were performed using natural seawater and phytoplankton collected north and south of the Gulf Stream. Bioassay treatments comprised iron, nitrate, iron + nitrate, iron + nitrate + phosphate, and rainwater. Phytoplankton growth was inferred from changes in chlorophyll a, inorganic nitrogen, and carbon-13 uptake, relative to unamended control treatments. Results indicated the greatest growth stimulation by iron + nitrate + phosphate, intermediate growth stimulation by rainwater, modest growth stimulation by nitrate and iron + nitrate, and no growth stimulation by iron. Based on these data and analysis of seawater and atmospheric samples, nitrogen was the proximate limiting nutrient, with a secondary limitation imposed by phosphorus. Our results imply that summer rain events increase new production in these waters by contributing nitrogen and phosphorus, with the availability of the latter setting the upper limit on rain-stimulated new production.

Plain Language Summary Human activities have substantially increased the atmospheric loading and deposition of biologically available nitrogen, an essential nutrient, to the surface ocean. Such atmospheric inputs to the ocean will likely impact on oceanic primary production by phytoplankton, and thus the marine ecosystem and ocean carbon cycling, although the scale and spatial distribution of such impacts are not well known. In this study, we used shipboard experiments, observations, and laboratory measurements to assess the potential impacts of atmospheric nitrogen deposition in rainfall on oceanic waters of the Mid-Atlantic Bight, off the U.S. eastern seaboard, during the summer. We find that the growth of phytoplankton in these waters is limited by the availability of nitrogen during summer, such that nitrogen added to the ocean by summer rain events can considerably stimulate phytoplankton primary production. However, the biological impact of these rainwater nitrogen inputs appears to be limited by the availability of another essential nutrient, phosphorus, which is present at relatively low concentrations in rainwater. This is the first study to directly examine the nutritional status of phytoplankton in relation to the impacts of rainwater nitrogen addition on primary production in oceanic waters off the U.S. East Coast.


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Article states: "Data discussed in this paper are provided in the supporting information, with full data archived at and available from the Biological and Chemical Oceanography Data Management Office ( under project 726328."

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Original Publication Citation

Sedwick, P. N., Bernhardt, P. W., Mulholland, M. R., Najjar, R. G., Blumen, L. M., Sohst, B. M., . . . Widner, B. (2018). Assessing phytoplankton nutritional status and potential impact of wet deposition in seasonally oligotrophic waters of the Mid-Atlantic Bight. Geophysical Research Letters, 45(7), 3203-3211. doi:10.1002/2017gl075361


0000-0001-8819-189X (Mulholland)


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