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Variable climatic conditions dominate recent phytoplankton dynamics in Chesapeake Bay




  • Harding, Lawrence W., Mallonee, Michael E., Perry, Elgin S., Miller, W. D., Adolf, Jason E., Gallegos, Charles L. and Paerl, Hans W.


  • Variable climatic conditions strongly influence phytoplankton dynamics in estuaries globally. Our study area is Chesapeake Bay, a highly productive ecosystem providing natural resources, transportation, and recreation for nearly 16 million people inhabiting a 165,000-km(2) watershed. Since World War II, nutrient over-enrichment has led to multiple ecosystem impairments caused by increased phytoplankton biomass as chlorophyll-a (chl-a). Doubled nitrogen (N) loadings from 1945-1980 led to increased chl-a, reduced water clarity, and low dissolved oxygen (DO), while decreased N loadings from 1981-2012 suggest modest improvement. The recent 30 years are characterized by high inter-annual variability of chl-a, coinciding with irregular dry and wet periods, complicating the detection of long-term trends. Here, we synthesize time-series data for historical and recent N loadings (TN, NO2? ?NO3), chl-a, floral composition, and net primary productivity (NPP) to distinguish secular changes caused by nutrient over-enrichment from spatio-temporal variability imposed by climatic conditions. Wet years showed higher chl-a, higher diatom abundance, and increased NPP, while dry years showed lower chl-a, lower diatom abundance, and decreased NPP. Our findings support a conceptual model wherein variable climatic conditions dominate recent phytoplankton dynamics against a backdrop of nutrient over-enrichment, emphasizing the need to separate these effects to gauge progress toward improving water quality in estuaries.

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Publication Date

  • 2016



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Start Page

  • 23773


  • 6