Estuaries and Coasts

, 34:1095 | Cite as

Assessing the Role of pH in Determining Water Column Nitrification Rates in a Coastal System

  • Robinson W. Fulweiler
  • Hollie E. Emery
  • Elise M. Heiss
  • Veronica M. Berounsky


Ocean acidification is predicted to impact the nitrogen cycle in a variety of ways. Specifically, manipulations of water column pH have shown that nitrification, the microbial conversion of ammonium to nitrate, is inhibited at low pH. A decrease in nitrification may impact phytoplankton composition and production, denitrification, and the production of nitrous oxide. We compiled an existing unique data set of concurrent water column nitrification rates and water column pH values from a temperate New England estuary (Narragansett Bay, RI, USA). Contrary to the current hypothesis, we found that nitrification rates were highest at low pH and significantly (P = 0.0031) lower at high water column pH. In this study, pH varied up to 0.85 units, 20% more than the maximum predicted ocean pH decrease of 0.7 units. These results highlight that nitrifying organisms in coastal systems tolerate a wide range of pH values. Moreover, the degree of negative correlation with pH may depend on site-specific environmental conditions. Combined, these findings indicate that the current hypothesis of the negative impacts of ocean acidification on nitrification, at least for the coastal ocean, might need reevaluation.


Nitrification Water column pH Estuary Narragansett Bay Climate change Acidification Ammonium 



The authors would like thank Scott Nixon for the helpful comments on previous versions of this manuscript and Luke Cole for the map. In addition, we thank the editor who handled this manuscript for their helpful guidance as well as two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and insightful comments that much improved this manuscript. There are no conflicts of interest related with any part of this article.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robinson W. Fulweiler
    • 1
  • Hollie E. Emery
    • 1
  • Elise M. Heiss
    • 1
  • Veronica M. Berounsky
    • 2
  1. 1.Earth Sciences DepartmentBoston UniversityBostonUSA
  2. 2.Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode IslandNarragansettUSA

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