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Keywords:

  • chlorophyll a;
  • phytoplankton biomass;
  • precipitation;
  • wind speed;
  • atmospheric nitrogen deposition;
  • U.S. East Coast

Abstract

Precipitation over the ocean surface in the vicinity of industrialized and populated coastlines can increase the ocean nitrate concentration and consequently enhance ocean primary productivity. Using satellite data and a meteorological reanalysis product, we evaluated the impact of precipitation events on the chlorophyll a concentration in coastal and offshore waters located downwind of the eastern United States. We found that in low-nutrient areas (defined as having nitrate concentrations < 1 μM) precipitation events were associated with increased levels of chlorophyll a (up to approximately 15%), but in high-nutrient areas (nitrate concentrations > 1 μM) they were associated with decreased levels. These contrasting responses of chlorophyll a concentration to precipitation were attributed to the correlation of precipitation with wind speed and to other factors (nutrients and light) limiting phytoplankton growth. Increases in wind speed accompanied by precipitation events typically deepen the mixed layer, which can entrain additional nutrients into the mixed layer but simultaneously reduce light availability. We suggest that in nutrient-depleted areas (south of 36°N) the added nutrients were a dominant factor increasing the chlorophyll a concentration, whereas in the nutrient-replete areas (north of 36°N), where phytoplankton growth was light limited, reduced light availability was the dominant factor determining reduced chlorophyll a concentration. Our results indicate that an increase in wind speed accompanied by precipitation events was a major contributor to the observed changes in chlorophyll a concentration during wet days, whereas the wet deposition of pollutant nitrogen slightly increased the chlorophyll a concentration (< 5%) only in nutrient-depleted areas.