The subarctic Pacific is a high-nutrient low-chlorophyll (HNLC) region in which phytoplankton growth is broadly limited by iron (Fe) availability. However, even with Fe limitation, the western subarctic Pacific (WSP) has significant phytoplankton growth and greater seasonal variability in lower trophic levels than the eastern subarctic Pacific. Therefore, differences in Fe supply must explain the west-to-east decrease in seasonal phytoplankton growth. The Fe flux to the euphotic zone in the WSP occurs at a “moderate” value, in that it is significantly higher than its value on the eastern side, yet it is not sufficient enough to cause widespread macronutrient depletion, that is, HNLC status is maintained. Although we recognize several Fe supply processes in the WSP, the mechanisms that account for this moderate value of Fe supply have not previously been explained. Here we demonstrate the pivotal role of tidal mixing in the Kuril Islands chain (KIC) for determining the moderate value. A basin-scale meridional Fe section shows that Fe derived from sediments in the Sea of Okhotsk is discharged through the KIC into the intermediate water masses (~ 800 m) of the western North Pacific. The redistribution of this Fe-rich intermediate water by intensive mixing as it crosses the KIC is the predominant process determining the ratio of micronutrient (Fe) to macronutrients (e.g., nitrate) in subsurface waters. This ratio can quantitatively explain the differences in surface macronutrient consumption between the western and eastern subarctic, as well as the general formation and biogeochemistry of HNLC waters of the subarctic North Pacific.
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