Continental-shelf sediment as a primary source of iron for coastal phytoplankton

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The availability of iron, an essential nutrient, controls rates of phytoplankton primary productivity in the open-ocean, upwelling ecosystems of the equatorial Pacific [1,2]. Upwelling injects large amounts of macronutrients into the euphotic zone of eastern boundary currents, such as the California Current System (CCS), where iron can become the limiting factor on productivity [3,4]. Iron addition to samples from some areas of the CCS has been shown to increase rates of biomass production [5,6], but the processes that control iron availability in these systems remain poorly understood. Here we report measurements of dissolvable iron (that is, dissolved plus leachable iron at pH 3) in transects across the CCS in March of 1997 and 1998. We found high concentrations of iron in 1997 during strong upwelling conditions. During the 1998 El Nino, the concentration of dissolvable iron in surface waters was low, even though that year was marked by high river flow and low offshore salinity. These results indicate that the primary source of iron in the CCS is resuspension of particles in the benthic boundary layer, followed by upwelling of this iron-rich water, rather than direct riverine input. This source of iron must be an essential but variable component of the high productivity found in upwelling ecosystems.

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