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Organisms and the Composition of Sea Water
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Compounds of Carbon, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Silicon in the Sea

Organic Carbon. The carbon present as carbon dioxide and the salts of carbonic acid, as well as many of the effects of biological activity on the distribution of CO2, have been discussed in chapter VI. Seasonal changes in the CO2 content of the waters of the English Channel have been described by Cooper (1933). The carbon present in sea water in organic combination will now be considered.

The CO2 that is removed from the water by organisms is utilized partly for the secretion of calcareous structures but chiefly for building up organic compounds. Metabolic activity returns most of the organic carbon to solution as CO2, and bacteria and other microorganisms play an important part in the break-down of excretory products and the detrital material resulting from the death and partial disintegration of plants and animals. If dissolved oxygen is present in the water, the end products will be completely oxidized, but in the absence of oxygen anaerobic bacteria may flourish and hydrogen sulphide and other products of putrefactive decomposition may be formed. The latter conditions apparently occur only in and above the sediments in certain areas and in enclosed basins. The CO2 in calcareous structures returns to solution if the skeletal material dissolves. It should be remembered that, as with other elements, the cycle of carbon in the sea is not completely closed, since there is some loss to the sediments in both calcareous material and in resistant organic matter.

Before proceeding to a discussion of the amounts of carbon occurring in organic combination, either in living organisms or in particulate or dissolved compounds of organic origin, it should be pointed out that the division of the organic matter into various fractions is an empirical one. It has been customary to speak of “net plankton”—usually that which can be removed from the water by filtration through a fine net; “nannoplankton”—that which will pass through the ordinary net but which can be removed by centrifuging or passage through filter paper; and “dissolved organic matter”—that which will pass through the filter. Examination of the literature reveals that a variety of methods have been used to separate those fractions, and consequently the results for different fractions are not always comparable. In the following discussion the term “particulate material” will be used to designate all the material, either living or dead, which is caught by a fine filter that will retain particles of about the size of the larger bacteria. It should be kept in mind that the organisms in sea water, the number of bacteria, and even the inorganic constituents involved in bacterial development undergo rather rapid changes after the collection of samples. Therefore, unless the separation into the required fractions is made immediately, or unless suitable preservatives are added, the results obtained for the

different fractions may be in error. Such errors may account for the relatively low amounts of particulate organic matter sometimes reported.

Pütter (p. 912) maintained that marine invertebrates obtained nourishment from the dissolved organic matter in the water. This hypothesis was based on observations which indicated that the amount of organic matter in solution was many hundred times greater than that present as plankton and particulate detritus. Further investigation has tended to reduce the difference between the two fractions of organic matter, because the earlier determinations of dissolved organic material were obtained by inaccurate methods. Additional studies summarized by Krogh (1931) and Bond (1933) also indicate that dissolved organic matter cannot be utilized by animals. Although Pütter's hypothesis has lost its original significance, it has stimulated a great deal of interest in the problem of the dissolved organic material and its utilization, and investigations have shown that dissolved organic material, although unused by animals, can be utilized by bacteria (p. 912).

Although the problem has attracted much discussion and speculation, there are very few trustworthy data concerning the amounts of carbon present in particulate or dissolved material in the sea. It is extremely difficult to determine accurately the carbon in small amounts of organic matter, especially in the presence of large quantities of salts. Methods have been proposed for concentrating the particulate material by filtration or precipitation (von Brand, 1935) and for determining the carbon by a microcombustion method. No method is as yet available for concentrating the dissolved organic material and freeing it from the salt; consequently the existing methods are based on wet combustions with strong oxidizing agents such as permanganate or chromate. (Bond, 1933; Krogh and Keys, 1934.) Two difficulties are inherent in the latter type of determination: (1) many of the inorganic salts present in sea water interfere with the oxidation and usually tend to give high values, (2) there is uncertainty as to the completeness of the destruction of the organic compounds. Some organic materials may be completely converted into carbon dioxide, water, and so on, by such a procedure; other compounds are only partially decomposed, and still others are not attacked at all. As the chemical constitution of the dissolved material is not known, it is difficult to evaluate the accuracy of determinations made by such methods. Determinations made by wet combustion give the “oxygen consumed,” and a further uncertainty arises when it is necessary to convert these values into the amounts of organic carbon present in the samples.

The development of marine bacteriology has offered a new approach to the problem of the amount of organic material (both particulate and dissolved) in sea water. If sea water is placed in clean, stoppered bottles and kept in the dark, bacteria will develop in great numbers

and the dissolved oxygen will be consumed in metabolic processes. The amount of oxygen consumed, if it is not completely exhausted, is a measure of the amount of organic matter attacked by the bacteria. Even if the water is passed through an ultrafilter to remove particles of colloidal dimensions, and is inoculated with unfiltered sea water, it is found that enough organic matter is still present to permit the development of a large bacterial population. This problem has been discussed by Keys, Christensen, and Krogh (1935) and in a number of publications by Waksman and by ZoBell (for example, Waksman and Renn, 1936; ZoBell, 1940). Although a line of investigation of great promise, studies of bacterial oxygen consumption are beset with many difficulties and the results thus far available are not conclusive. It has been shown that the amount of oxygen consumed is a function of temperature, time, the source of water, and the solid surface-volume ratio (ZoBell and Anderson, 1936). Until standardized methods are established and extensive studies made of the regional, depth, and time variations of this property, only some general quantitative results given below can be considered.

The amount of carbon present in oceanic sea water in inorganic compounds is between 2.1 and 2.5 mg-atoms per liter (25 to 30 mg/L), depending upon the salinity, temperature, and effects of biological activity. Krogh (1931, 1934a,b) has summarized the available data on the amount of organic carbon in sea water. In his later work he reports total organic carbon analyses on six water samples from the Atlantic Ocean. Virtually no variation with depth was found, and Krogh considers the average value applicable to all depths and oceans. The average was 0.2 mg-atoms (2.05 mg) of carbon per liter, which is approximately one tenth of the amount present in inorganic form. From estimates of the amount of plankton, Krogh found the dissolved material to be about three hundred times more abundant than the particulate organic matter. These figures apply to the deeper water of the open ocean. Bond (1933) examined the surface layers in nearshore areas of higher production and found rather different values. His original data, obtained by wet combustion, are expressed in terms of oxygen consumed. In order to make them comparable to those of Krogh, it has been assumed that two atoms of oxygen were required to oxidize one atom of carbon. The recomputed minimum, maximum, and average values are given in table 53. Although Bond's values for the dissolved fraction are approximately the same as those of Krogh for the total carbon, they show a considerable range. Furthermore, it will be noted that the particulate material is relatively more abundant and forms between one tenth and one third of the total.

The results of bacteria1 oxygen-consumption studies are difficult to evaluate because of the variety of techniques that have been used.

Sometimes the water has been filtered and at other times it has not, and in relatively few cases have the cultures been kept for a sufficiently long time. The maximum values of oxygen consumption for unfiltered sea water range between 0.13 and 0.18 mg-atoms of oxygen per liter (1.5 and 2.0 ml/L), Using a 2 : 1 ratio by atoms, these are equivalent to 0.07 to 0.09 mg-atoms of carbon. These values are of the order of one fifth to one half of the total organic carbon values given above. Waksman and Renn (1936) have found that in the laboratory about 50 per cent of the organic matter is readily attacked by bacteria, of which about 60 per cent is oxidized and 40 per cent is converted into bacterial cell substance. Estimates of organic carbon in sea water obtained in this way therefore give values of the same magnitude as those obtained by chemical methods.

Substance mg-atoms/L of carbon
Minimum Maximum Average
Net plankton 0.008 0.06 0.03
Nannoplankton 0.005 0.11 0.03
Dissolved 0.13 0.25 0.20
Total organic 0.143 0.42 0.26

The oxygen consumptions given above were for water from near the surface in areas relatively rich in plankton. Samples from deeper levels consume about one half as much oxygen. As shown previously (p. 236), there are relatively constant ratios between carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the organic material. This fact has been used in certain studies in which the organic nitrogen (determined by the Kjeldahl method) is used as a measure of the amount of organic matter. The relative amounts of organic nitrogen and phosphorus in sea water are in fair agreement with the amounts of carbon given above. The organic nitrogen content of bottom samples (p. 1010) has been widely used as a measure of their content of organic matter. In sediments the ratio of

carbon to nitrogen has been found to be larger than in the organisms. This change in the ratio indicates that a relatively large proportion of the nitrogen has been lost by the refractory detrital matter that accumulates on the sea bottom.


Annual cycle in the nitrate and nitrite content of the surface waters at Friday Harbor, Washington.

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Seasonal variations in nitrate, nitrite, and ammonia in the surface layer (0–25 m) and in the bottom layer (50–70 m) in the English Channel during the period November, 1930, to January, 1932. (After Cooper, 1937b.)

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Nitrogen Compounds and Their Seasonal Variation. In certain coastal areas, sufficient data are available to examine the seasonal changes in the distribution of nitrate, nitrite, and ammonia. Only selected cases of seasonal variations will be given, but additional references may be found in the works cited. Phifer and Thompson (1937) give the results of nearly five years' studies of the surface conditions at Friday Harbor, on the San Juan Channel. The averages of the monthly means for NO3 and NO2 for the period 1931 to 1935 are shown in fig. 57. It should be noted

that the NO2 scale is one fiftieth that for the NO3. The nitrite appears in greatest abundance after the period of most rapid utilization of nitrate by plants in the spring and summer, and then decreases and is minimal at approximately the period of maximum nitrate. Cooper (1937b) has shown the seasonal changes in NO3, NO2, and NH3 in the surface (0 to 25m) and bottom (50 to 70m) layers in the English Channel during the interval November, 1930, to January, 1932 (fig. 58). The three components are on different scales—namely, NO3-N: NH3-N: NO2-, N = 8 : 2 : 1. In general, these data show cycles similar to those in fig. 57. During and after the period of greatest plankton development, there is a rise in ammonia, followed by one in nitrite and then one in nitrate. This indicates that, in the regeneration of nitrate from organic matter, the nitrogen passes through these stages. It should be noted, however, that the ammonia and nitrite never reach concentrations as great as the nitrate. In the English Channel the total inorganic nitrogen compounds are always much lower than at Friday Harbor. Rakestraw (1936) has presented detailed observations of the variations in nitrite and nitrate during a year in the Gulf of Maine, from which fig. 59 is taken. These data show the nitrite to be most abundant near the surface during the summer and autumn, when the nitrate is lowest. That the higher quantities of nitrite are definitely associated with the distribution of density, and hence of temperature, is shown in fig. 60 (Rakestraw, 1936). When there is a marked thermocline, the nitrite is either in or above it. Similar data are not available for ammonia in the Gulf of Maine, but Redfield and Keys (1938) report that it is closely related to the amount of nitrite and also to the amount of plankton in the water.


Seasonal variations in the vertical distribution of nitrite and nitrate in the Gulf of Maine during the period May, 1933, to September, 1934. (After Rakestraw, 1936b.)

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The nitrogen in particulate organic material may be determined on the separated material which has been concentrated by filtration or

carried down with a flocculent precipitate (von Brand, 1935). von Brand (1938) has determined the particulate organic nitrogen for five oceanic stations in the northwest Atlantic. The greatest variability was found in the upper 400 m, with values ranging between about 0.07 and 1.3 μg-atoms/L. The high values usually occurred at or near the surface. Near Iceland, values as high as 5.2 μg-atoms/L of nitrogen have been found, and in the Gulf of Maine surface values of 2.4 μg-atoms/L were obtained (von Brand, 1937). Below 400 m the amounts varied rather irregularly between 0.07 and 0.21 μg-atoms/L. Cooper (1934) found between 0.3 and 0.7 μg-atoms N/L as net plankton in the English Channel. Cooper's samples did not include nannoplankton and detritus.


Vertical distribution of nitrite, as related to density (σt) and temperature. (After Rakestraw, 1936.)

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The total organic nitrogen, including both particulate and dissolved material, has been investigated by Robinson and Wirth (1934a,b). Kjeldahl analyses on unfiltered oceanic sea water showed about 7.2 μg-atoms/L of organic nitrogen near the surface, about half this amount at intermediate depths, and a slight increase again toward the bottom. In nearshore water the values near the surface were about twice as high as those in the oceanic samples. Moberg and Fleming (1934), using a similar method, found about 10 μg-atoms/L, on an average, of organic nitrogen in the surface layers off southern California and somewhat higher values at greater depths.

Figures 57 and 58 show that at Friday Harbor about 10 μg-atoms/L of NO3-N disappear during the summer, and that the change in the English Channel is approximately the same. As NH3 and NO2 are rarely present in comparable amounts, we must conclude that the nitrogen is in organisms, organic debris, dissolved organic compounds, or in some unrecognized inorganic form.

Interesting experiments by von Brand, Rakestraw, and Renn (1937, 1939) on the regeneration of nitrate from marine plankton in vitro indicate that the formation of ammonia from organic matter probably takes place without the formation of intermediate compounds. The results

of one of their experiments are shown in fig. 61. In this experiment, sea water, with added diatom material, was placed in the dark. After about four months, much of the particulate-N had been converted to NO3 through the intermediate stages of NH3 and NO2. The jars were then placed in the light and inoculated with diatoms. Almost complete utilization of the NO3 followed. The jars were again placed in the dark and the cycle was repeated.

These experiments are extremely interesting, although regenerative processes in vitro apparently differ considerably from those in the sea. This result might well be expected from the peculiar laboratory conditions and the fact that the water was enriched with organic material. It may also account for the fact that the NH3 and NO2 reached relatively high values (the same as the NO3), and that during the regeneration the stages of production of NH3, NO2, and NO3 were clearly defined (cf. figs. 57 and 58). Furthermore, it is interesting to note the great increase in the amount of nitrogen present as particulate material that was apparently resistant to the action of the bacteria present. At the end of the experiment, approximately 50 per cent of the nitrogen was in this form. Such a “waste” of nitrogen does not take place in the sea. It is also of interest to note that diatoms would flourish if the medium were placed in the light when either NH3 or NO2 were abundant and before the NO3 had been produced. This supports the theory that marine plants can use any of these inorganic forms bf nitrogen equally well.


Experiment on the utilization and regeneration of nitrate. When medium was placed in light, it was innoculated with diatoms. Data from von Brand, Rakestraw, and Renn, 1939.

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Nitrogen Cycle in the Sea. The chemically bound nitrogen in sea water is known to occur in living organisms, in dissolved and particulate material of organic origin, and as ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.

The quantities present in these various forms vary from place to place, and in the upper levels may undergo seasonal changes. Much work has been done on the nitrogen cycle in the sea to determine the forms of nitrogen that can be used by the plants and the agencies which return the organic nitrogen to inorganic forms. In the surface layers, prior too the vegetative season, the most abundant inorganic form of nitrogen is nitrate, and in deeper water, where nitrite and ammonia are negligible, this is always the case.

Bacteria play important roles in the mineralization of organic nitrogen by acting upon detrital material, excreta, and dissolved organic matter, and in the intertransformation of NH3, NO2, and NO3 (chapter XVIII). Pure culture studies with different species of marine bacteria show that a variety of transformations can be made under laboratory conditions, but these observations must be applied to the sea with caution because the organisms may not be capable of carrying on similar processes in the natural environment. The very large literature bearing on the nitrogen cycle in the sea has been reviewed by Cooper (1937b), who has considered all the various modes of transformation that are possible and from them has selected the more probable ones. In general, it is believed that the nitrogenous material gives rise to ammonia, which in turn is converted to nitrite and then to nitrate. The ammonia may be formed by the hydrolysis of protein material, amino acids, amines, and purine compounds such as urea, or through bacterial action on them.

The oxidation of ammonia to nitrite releases a large amount of energy and hence needs only to be activated in some way. The following agencies have been suggested:

  1. Photochemical oxidation induced by direct sunlight. This reaction was first observed in sea water by ZoBell (1933), but, as pointed out by Cooper, can be effective only within the upper meter or so of water, owing to the rapid absorption of the shorter wave lengths that activate the reaction.

  2. Chemical oxidation by the free oxygen in the water in the presence of surface catalysts. This reaction is of unknown significance.

  3. Bacterial oxidation. Nitrifying bacteria are present in bottom sediments, and forms isolated by Zobell (1935b) converted ammonia to nitrite. However, the conversion occurred at a much higher oxidation-reduction potential than is ordinarily found in the sediments. Studies of the decomposition of marine plankton in vitro show a conversion of ammonia to nitrite, but no nitrifying bacteria could be isolated (von Brand, Rakestraw, and Renn, 1937). Nonetheless, the fact that nitrifying bacteria cannot be readily detected in sea water is not definite proof of their absence. It is well known that many marine bacteria are difficult to culture, and development of new techniques may establish their presence. Carey (1938) has shown that they can be isolated from

    water rich in plankton. The presence of nitrite, which can sometimes be detected near the sea bottom, as in the English Channel in certain seasons, may indicate either oxidation of ammonia or reduction of nitrate. Although it has not been established, bacteria are probably the most important agency in the oxidation of ammonia to nitrite.

Oxidation of nitrite to nitrate also releases energy, and, as in the oxidation of ammonia, purely chemical or photochemical processes may be important. Bacteria capable of making the transformation are abundant in sediments, but they are difficult to isolate from the water column. Development of suitable techniques may also clarify this problem. Cooper has pointed out that in sea water saturated with oxygen the nitrate in equilibrium with nitrite will be of a tremendously greater order of magnitude. Hence, the detection of nitrite in the water column may indicate active production of this substance, which is present only as a transitional stage in the regeneration of nitrate. Brandt's hypothesis (p. 768) was based on the discovery of marine bacteria which under laboratory conditions were capable of denitrification. However, it is now considered that under the conditions prevailing in the sea there is little or no loss of fixed nitrogen, although it has been shown that reduction of NO3 to NO2 may occur. This reduction may also be carried out by diatoms, as has been observed in pure-culture experiments (ZoBell, 1935a).


Annual cycle in the phosphate content of the surface waters at Friday Harbor, Washington, and the monthly N/P ratios.

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Organic Phosphorus and Seasonal Variations in Phosphate. For certain coastal areas, sufficient data exist to show the nature of the seasonal variations in phosphate. Friday Harbor, the English Channel, and the Gulf of Maine have been selected as examples.

In fig. 62 are presented the averages based on about four years' observations of the monthly mean values for PO4-P at Friday Harbor (Phifer and Thompson, 1937). Highest values occur during the winter, and lowest values during the summer season, when phytoplankton growth has been great. The monthly ratios of N:P are somewhat lower than the normal ratio proposed by Cooper, and their variability during the course of the year indicates that proportionally more nitrate than phosphate is utilized. Neither of these substances can be considered as limiting the amount of phytoplankton produced at this locality. Phosphate data from the English Channel (Cooper, 1938b) for the period November, 1930, to January, 1932, are presented in fig. 63 as

PO4-P. In this shallow region there is never very much difference between the quantities in the surface and in the bottom layers. The amount of phosphate in the English Channel is much less than at Friday Harbor, although the difference between maxima and minima are of the same order, 0.5 μg-atoms/L in the former, and about 0.75 μg-atoms/L in the latter area. The minimum values for San Juan Channel are in excess of the maximum values for the English Channel. Similar conditions hold for the nitrate (p. 252)


Seasonal variations in the phosphate content of the surface layer (0–25 m) and the bottom layer (50–75 m) in the English Channel during the period November, 1930, to January, 1932.

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Cooper (1938b) has assembled phosphate data for the English Channel covering a period of eighteen years. In fig. 64 are entered the winter maxima for the average PO4-P content of the water column near Plymouth. As the phosphate content of the water during the winter is a measure of potential production for the following spring and summer, his data indicate a drop in fertility after 1929 or 1930. The changes are considered to be associated with the circluation, which may undergo random or periodic fluctuations.


Winter maxima for phosphate in the English Channel for the period 1921–1938.

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In the preceding discussion, emphasis has been placed on the cyclic nature of the seasonal variations, and it is obvious that the conditions in any area may not repeat themselves if disturbances, such as shifts in the circulation, bring about changes.

The seasonal variations in the PO4-P and in the various organic phosphorus fractions in the Gulf of Maine have been studied by Redfield, Smith, and Ketchum (1937). During one year, five series of samples were collected at various depths between the surface and the bottom. These

samples were analyzed for PO4-P, dissolved organic-P, and particulate organic-P. The results are summarized in table 54, The variations in total phosphorus during the year are ascribed to the fact that, although collections were made at the same locality, the circulation (advection) brought in water of different character. Table 54 shows that the particulate phosphorus never represents more than about 10 per cent of the total, but that the dissolved organic phosphorus sometimes occurs in relatively large amounts, in the upper 60 m approaching 50 per cent of the PO4-P.

Form of phosphorus Interval of depth, meters μg-atoms/L of phosphorus
May 18, 1935 Aug. 20, 1935 Nov. 8, 1935 Feb. 26, 1936 May 14, 1935
Phosphate 0–60 0.60 0.68 0.65 1.03 0.64
60–120 1.11 0.91 1.08 1.02 1.25
120–180 1.31 1.22 1.25 1.11 1.51
180–240 1.61 1.39 1.22 1.51 1.60
Dissolved organic 0–60 0.08 0.34 0.29 0.07 0.14
60–120 0.02 0.29 0.31 0.14 0.36
120–180 0.01 0.17 0.29 0.17 0.15
180–240 0.00 0.20 0.37 0.03 0.10
Particulate organic 0–60 0.15 0.10 0.10 0.05 0.12
60–120 0.06 0.05 0.05 0.05 0.07
120–180 0.04 0.03 0.08 0.03 0.02
180–240 0.04 0.03 0.08 0.04 0.06
Total (Average for whole water column) 0–240 1.26 1.36 1.44 1.31 1.51

Earlier work on organic phosphorus in the sea has been summarized by Cooper (1937a), who also reports observations from the English Channel. Cooper points out that many determinations of the total “organic phosphorus” (both particulate and dissolved) probably include arsenite-arsenic that has been oxidized to arsenate when the organic matter was destroyed and that has not been reduced again. Arsenate will give the same reaction as phosphate in the colorimetric estimation, and, because the arsenic present as arsenite will not affect the inorganic phosphate analyses, the determination of “organic phosphorus” will be too high by about 0.2 μg-atoms/L (the concentration of arsenic). In the determinations in the Gulf of Maine this source of error was

eliminated. The “organic phosphorus,” uncorrected for arsenic, averages about 0.4 μg-atoms/L (Cooper, 1937a). If reduced by one half to eliminate the effect of arsenic, this value corresponds to the average for the Gulf of Maine.

The maximum values reported by Redfield et al in the Gulf of Maine for particulate and dissolved organic phosphorus are

If multiplied by 16, the ratio of N:P in organisms, the corresponding values of particulate and dissolved organic nitrogen would be 3.4 and 9.3 μg-atoms/L respectively, which agree with determinations of nitrogen in the corresponding fractions (p. 254).

Phosphorus Cycle in the Sea. The cycle of phosphorus in the sea is rather similar to that of nitrogen except that only one inorganic form, phosphate, is known to occur. As shown above, phosphorus can be found in organisms, in particulate and dissolved organic compounds, and as phosphate. Probably only the phosphate is utilized by plants, and the dissolved organic fraction, which can originate as a metabolic product and from excreta, and the decomposition of organic material must be intermediate stages in the regeneration of phosphate. The roles that bacteria play are not yet known.

Studies of the decomposition of plankton material in vitro have led to some interesting results. Cooper (1935) added zooplankton and phytoplankton material of known phosphorus content to sea water and determined the rate at which the PO4-P was formed. The PO4 appeared more rapidly in the zooplankton samples than in the diatom material. Furthermore, the PO4 produced in the zooplankton samples was in excess of that originally present as PO4 plus that added in the particulate material. This excess was formed from dissolved organic phosphorus originally present in the water. The PO4 in the diatom experiments never rose to the level of the original PO4 plus that added, even after an interval of about five months. The initial rate of appearance of PO4 was rapid, and in the zooplankton experiments the transformation was nearly complete in about two weeks. The difference in behavior of the plant and animal material cannot yet be accounted for. Seiwell and Seiwell (1938) found that zooplankton decomposition at 22° to 25°C (probably higher than the temperature of Cooper's experiments) was such that the formation of PO4 was most rapid during the first day or two after death. This stage was often followed by a period when the rate of utilization of PO4 by microorganisms in the experiments exceeded that of formation. On the basis of these experiments it is sometimes considered that the PO4 must be regenerated more rapidly than the NO3. However, field evidence offers little support for this theory. Examination

of figures illustrating the seasonal variation shows that the minima and maxima in NO3 and PO4 occur in the same months, which would indicate that the relative rates of utilization and regeneration are about the same. Furthermore, estimates of plankton production in the English Channel based on the drop in PO4 and NO3 from winter maxima to summer minima (Cooper, 1938b) yield approximately the same results. If these are utilized in the proportion of 16:1, the NO3-N equivalent to the PO4-P would be 7.4 μg-atoms/L. As only a small fraction of these amounts are ever present in living organisms, the water must contain an abundance of detrital or dissolved substances available for regeneration. If the rate of regeneration of PO4 were quicker than that for NO3, it would be expected that the drop in PO4 would be much smaller. Although nothing is yet known concerning the absolute rates of regenera- tion in the sea, at least there is no evidence that their relative rates are very different.

Redfield, Smith, and Ketchum (1937), on the basis of the material summarized in table 54, have calculated the manner in which the various phosphorus compounds vary in the different layers, assuming (1) that all utilization of phosphate takes place in the upper 60 m, (2) that all downward transport of phosphorus is due to the settling of organisms and particulate material, and (3) that the upward transport is all due to eddy diffusion. From their examination it was concluded that decomposition and regeneration took place throughout the column of about 240 m of water.


Annual cycle in the silicate content of the surface waters at Friday Harbor, Washington.

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Seasonal Variation in Silicate. Observations on the seasonal cycle in silicate-silicon have been carried out in many localities, of which Friday Harbor and the English Channel have been selected as examples. The data presented are comparable to those given for NO3-N and PO4-P. Fig. 65 shows the average monthly values for Friday Harbor based on more than four years' observations. The highest values occur during the winter and the lowest values during the early summer. The range in silicon is 15 μg-atoms/L. The ranges in SiO3-Si, NO3-N, and PO4-P are in the proportions of 20:14.7:1. Data for the English Channel (Cooper, 1933) are shown in fig. 66. It will be noted that the concentration of silicon in the English Channel is much lower than it is at Friday Harbor, being in general only about 1/25 as great. The range in silicon

during 1931 was about 3.5 μg-atoms/L, and the ratios of the ranges of SiO3-Si, NO3-N, and PO4-P are 7.6 : 13.7 : 1. The ratios of utilization of NO3 and PO4 in the two areas are in reasonably good agreement, but there is a marked difference in the amount of silicon withdrawn. Whether or not this difference is associated with the character of the plankton or the sequence of plankton development in the two areas is not known. The seasonal cycle in the SiO3 distribution in Monterey Bay was presented in fig. 56.


Seasonal variations in the silicate content of the surface layer (0–25 m) and the bottom layer (50–70 m) in the English Channel during the period November, 1930 to January, 1932.

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A factor that may complicate the seasonal changes in the silicon concentration in nearshore areas is the amount of siliceous material carried in by river waters, which is generally several times greater than that found in sea water; dilution will therefore tend to raise the concentration of silicate (Hutchinson, 1928).

The Silicon Cycle in the Sea. The depletion of the silicon in the surface layers is the result of biological activity and the sinking of the organisms or of their skeletal remains. The silicon removed from the water by diatoms or other organisms may return to solution after the death of the organism or may be deposited on the sea bottom. Unlike their roles in the cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, bacteria are probably not directly involved in the re-solution of silicon from skeletal material. The skeletal material that sinks to the bottom forms either a temporary or permanent constituent of the sediments. Siliceous sediments are found in higher latitudes where the bottom material contains a very large proportion of diatom frustules, while in other regions radiolarian skeletons make up a large part of the sediment (chapter XX).


In the English Channel the silicon distribution is more erratic than that of PO4 and of NO3, and there may be large differences in the amounts at various levels. High values often occur near the surface and immediately over the bottom. The high surface values are ascribed to the effects of river water, the high bottom values to the re-solution of skeletal material that has settled there. The accumulation of dissolved silicates at a marked thermocline is also evidence of re-solution of slowly settling debris.

Estimates of plankton production in the English Channel based on the difference between the winter maxima and summer minima in PO4-P, NO3-N, and SiO3-Si (Cooper 1933, 1938b) yield values from the SiO3 data which are approximately 1/15 of those obtained from the other elements. Cooper has attributed the smaller value to the rapidity with which the silicon passes through its cycle. The difference in the amount of silicon utilized in the English Channel and at Friday Harbor was noted above, and the fact that the concentration is reduced in the English Channel to a very low level may indicate that in that locality it does influence the production of diatoms.

King and Davidson (1933) found that the quantity of SiO3-Si in solution affected the growth of diatoms in laboratory cultures. They also followed the changes in dissolved silicon after the death of the diatoms and found that complete solution took place in about five months. Marine phytoplankton were similarly studied, and it was found that samples which were boiled dissolved more slowly than those unboiled. The authors suggest the possible existence of an enzyme that hastens solution.

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