In the run up to the Ocean Sciences meeting next week, I have been exploring the Chilean Seaglider data from the March 2009 deployment in more detail. As far as I know, our Seagliders are the only ones currently in use that have PAR (photosynthetically active radiation) sensors on them, so I wanted to highlight some of those data on my poster. One process that I wanted to look for was daytime fluorescence quenching (DFQ) in the surface waters. Before I get into DFQ, let me back up a bit…

Chlorophyll-a is a pigment used by plants (and algae) during photosynthesis. It is what gives plants their green color. When a chlorophyll molecule has more incoming light than it can effectively shuttle into the process of photosynthesis, it has two ways to get rid of the excess radiation: it can release it as heat, or re-emit the light as fluorescence. Fluorescence by Chlorophyll-a is one thing that we measure with the Seagliders, and is often used as a proxy for plant biomass in the ocean. The first order assumption is: more fluorescence = more chlorophyll pigment = more biomass. However, biology being what it is (inherently complex, and therefore, FUN), there are many factors that can add significant variability in the relationship between fluorescence and pigment concentration (let alone biomass). Some of these may be community composition, light history of the cells (changes in mixed layer depth or stratification, e.g.), nutrient limitation and other stressors.

Now, back to DFQ. When the sun is high during the midday, the amount of incoming solar radiation is often much higher than the amount that phytoplankton cells in the surface waters can effectively process. When this happens, the cells basically throw up their hands (if they had hands), cry uncle (if they had uncles), and start to dissipate the excess energy as heat rather than fluorescence. So, what we would observe in this scenario would be decreased fluorescence during noon hours relative to the amount of chlorophyll pigment that is present, or daytime fluorescence quenching. Profiles of chlorophyll concentration or chlorophyll absorption during this same time period would not show a decrease in the amount of chlorophyll present in the water column, so interpretations of surface fluorescence data have to be carefully considered. This is where the PAR sensor on the Seaglider makes it’s contribution.

Below is a plot that shows the effect of DFQ on the fluorescence signal. I took the Seaglider data from each dive or climb, and median binned the data in ten meter surface bins from 0-10m, 10-20m, 20-30m, and 30-40m. I plotted PAR in black, and Chl-a in green, and plotted both vs. time (day of year) on the x-axis. This is one transect of data.

Section 3 Chl-a and PAR bins

Section 3 Chl-a and PAR bins

You can see that DFQ is quite apparent in the 0-10m and 10-20m bins, but the effect starts to fade and is hardly visible deeper in the water column. Neat, eh?

The next step, which I probably won’t get to before the conference, is to look into where and when DFQ is more pronounced, and relate this variability to the physical environment of the cells. One place to start would be to look at the mixed layer depth in order to estimate the daily integrated PAR that the surface community is getting. It seems obvious, but can I relate a shallower mixed layer depth with higher DFQ using in situ data? That would be pretty exciting! There are caveats, of course. The existence of a mixed layer doesn’t establish that mixing is actually taking place, etc., but the effort is worth making with these unprecedented data…