Lake Tahoe is an oligotrophic lake appreciated for its transparent waters, yet the Lake's clarity has been declining for several decades due in part to eutrophication. At the same time, a shift from nitrogen (N) toward phosphorus (P) limitation of phytoplankton has occurred that could be due to atmospheric deposition of nutrients with high N:P ratios. Atmospheric particle samples collected during 2005–2006 had a mean soluble N:P ratio of 192:1, well above the Redfield ratio of 16:1 typically required by phytoplankton. Samples collected during the Angora Fire that occurred in 2007 were particularly enriched in N relative to P, with a mean ratio >2800:1. A bioassay incubation experiment was conducted using locally collected atmospheric total suspended particulate (TSP) matter. TSP samples with high ammonium (NH4+) and low P content favored the growth of picoplankton (cells <3 µm) and opportunistic filamentous cyanobacteria, whereas larger nanophytoplankton (cells 3–20 µm) were better competitors when more P was available. Picoplankton growth can increase primary productivity without causing a large increase in chlorophyll (chl a) or biomass. Aerosol-nutrient-induced picoplankton growth (together with shifts in grazing dynamics and stratification trends) may contribute to the uncoupling between primary productivity, chl a, and biomass that has been observed in Lake Tahoe in the last several decades and, in particular, following the Wheeler and Angora Fires. The chemical composition of aerosols has a marked impact on ecosystem dynamics in Lake Tahoe with potential consequences to lake productivity and microbial community dynamics.
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