Photosynthesis Research

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 235–258 | Cite as

The role of phytoplankton photosynthesis in global biogeochemical cycles

  • Paul G. Falkowski
Oceanic photosynthesis Minireview


Phytoplankton biomass in the world's oceans amounts to only ∽1–2% of the total global plant carbon, yet these organisms fix between 30 and 50 billion metric tons of carbon annually, which is about 40% of the total. On geological time scales there is profound evidence of the importance of phytoplankton photosynthesis in biogeochemical cycles. It is generally assumed that present phytoplankton productivity is in a quasi steady-state (on the time scale of decades). However, in a global context, the stability of oceanic photosynthetic processes is dependent on the physical circulation of the upper ocean and is therefore strongly influenced by the atmosphere. The net flux of atmospheric radiation is critical to determining the depth of the upper mixed layer and the vertical fluxes of nutrients. These latter two parameters are keys to determining the intensity, and spatial and temporal distributions of phytoplankton blooms. Atmospheric radiation budgets are not in steady-state. Driven largely by anthropogenic activities in the 20th century, increased levels of IR- absorbing gases such as CO2, CH4 and CFC's and NOx will potentially increase atmospheric temperatures on a global scale. The atmospheric radiation budget can affect phytoplankton photosynthesis directly and indirectly. Increased temperature differences between the continents and oceans have been implicated in higher wind stresses at the ocean margins. Increased wind speeds can lead to higher nutrient fluxes. Throughout most of the central oceans, nitrate concentrations are sub-micromolar and there is strong evidence that the quantum efficiency of Photosystem II is impaired by nutrient stress. Higher nutrient fluxes would lead to both an increase in phytoplankton biomass and higher biomass-specific rates of carbon fixation. However, in the center of the ocean gyres, increased radiative heating could reduce the vertical flux of nutrients to the euphotic zone, and hence lead to a reduction in phytoplankton carbon fixation. Increased desertification in terrestrial ecosystems can lead to increased aeolean loadings of essential micronutrients, such as iron. An increased flux of aeolean micronutrients could fertilize nutrient-replete areas of the open ocean with limiting trace elements, thereby stimulating photosynthetic rates. The factors which limit phytoplankton biomass and photosynthesis are discussed and examined with regard to potential changes in the Earth climate system which can lead the oceans away from steady-state. While it is difficult to confidently deduce changes in either phytoplankton biomass or photosynthetic rates on decadal time scales, time-series analysis of ocean transparency data suggest long-term trends have occurred in the North Pacific Ocean in the 20th century. However, calculations of net carbon uptake by the oceans resulting from phytoplankton photosynthesis suggest that without a supply of nutrients external to the ocean, carbon fixation in the open ocean is not presently a significant sink for excess atmospheric CO2.

Key words

biogeochemical cycles oceans photoacclimation Photosystem II nutrient limitation phytoplankton quantum efficiency of photosynthesis 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul G. Falkowski
    • 1
  1. 1.Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences DivisionBrookhaven National LaboratoryUptonUSA

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