The annual cycles of phytoplankton biomass

Monika Winder, James E. Cloern

Abstract

Terrestrial plants are powerful climate sentinels because their annual cycles of growth, reproduction and senescence are finely tuned to the annual climate cycle having a period of one year. Consistency in the seasonal phasing of terrestrial plant activity provides a relatively low-noise background from which phenological shifts can be detected and attributed to climate change. Here, we ask whether phytoplankton biomass also fluctuates over a consistent annual cycle in lake, estuarine–coastal and ocean ecosystems and whether there is a characteristic phenology of phytoplankton as a consistent phase and amplitude of variability. We compiled 125 time series of phytoplankton biomass (chlorophyll a concentration) from temperate and subtropical zones and used wavelet analysis to extract their dominant periods of variability and the recurrence strength at those periods. Fewer than half (48%) of the series had a dominant 12-month period of variability, commonly expressed as the canonical spring-bloom pattern. About 20 per cent had a dominant six-month period of variability, commonly expressed as the spring and autumn or winter and summer blooms of temperate lakes and oceans. These annual patterns varied in recurrence strength across sites, and did not persist over the full series duration at some sites. About a third of the series had no component of variability at either the six- or 12-month period, reflecting a series of irregular pulses of biomass. These findings show that there is high variability of annual phytoplankton cycles across ecosystems, and that climate-driven annual cycles can be obscured by other drivers of population variability, including human disturbance, aperiodic weather events and strong trophic coupling between phytoplankton and their consumers. Regulation of phytoplankton biomass by multiple processes operating at multiple time scales adds complexity to the challenge of detecting climate-driven trends in aquatic ecosystems where the noise to signal ratio is high.

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