Factors Influencing the Distribution of Nutrient Elements
The concept of dynamic equilibrium (p. 160) can be applied to the large-scale distributions of phosphate, nitrate, and silicate discussed above. On this assumption the distribution is stationary, the local change is zero, (∂s/∂t = 0), and there must be a balance between the effects of diffusion, advection, and the net effects of biological processes. Although the concept of stationary distribution is applicable to the deeper waters and probably to the upper layers in low latitudes, it is not valid for the upper several hundred meters in localities where seasonal variations are conspicuous.
In the surface layers—that is, in the euphotic zone—biological processes will generally lead to a net utilization of the nutrient elements, and, if the rate of utilization exceeds the rate of supply by diffusion and by advection, the concentrations will decrease. This is the characteristic change that occurs during the spring and summer months in regions where physical conditions limit plant activity during the winter. In such regions the reverse change takes place during the winter, when the supply to the surface layers by diffusion and advection outweighs the utilization and leads to an increase in the nutrient content at and near the surface. Consequently in regions where the temperature, light intensity, and biological or other agencies are unfavorable for plant growth during part of the year, marked seasonal variations may occur in the nutrient distribution in the surface layers. In addition to fluctuations in consumption, the supply of nutrient elements to the surface layers by diffusion and advection may vary during the course of the year. For example, the magnitude of the vertical coefficient of eddy diffusivity, Az, is independent of the gradient in the nutrient concentrations but will be affected by the temperature distribution and the wind conditions. Furthermore, changes due to shifts in currents will affect the distributions, although undoubtedly the most conspicuous effects are those related to vertical advection. In regions of surface convergence, waters low in nutrients may extend for a considerable distance below the euphotic layer. On the other hand, where there is divergence—that is, upwelling—nutrientrich waters are carried upward toward the surface. Divergence may occur in the open ocean, as on the Equator and at the northern boundary of the Equatorial Countercurrent (p. 635), or along continental coasts where the prevailing winds are such that upwelling is induced (p. 501). In coastal areas where upwelling is seasonal or intermittent, the nutrient
Seasonal variations in the silicate content at various depths in Monterey Bay, California. Silicate scale increases downwards.
From the foregoing comments, it is obvious that seasonal variations in the distribution of the biologically affected elements must be interpreted with great care. Fluctuations in concentration cannot be ascribed to biological processes alone unless it can be established on the basis of other data, such as temperature and salinity observations, that the effects of advection and diffusion can be neglected. In certain regions where there are marked differences between the summer and winter concentrations, estimates of organic production have been made from the depletion of nutrients occurring in the upper layers. Such estimates are minimal unless the effects of regeneration and diffusion are taken into account, and will be invalid if advection is an important factor, as in Monterey Bay. No systematic study of the seasonal variations in the distribution of the nutrients in the open ocean has yet been made, but in certain coastal areas a considerable amount of data has been accumulated that will be taken up under the discussion of the individual elements in the following pages.