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The global distribution of phytoplankton size spectrum and size classes from their light-absorption spectra derived from satellite data

Roy, S. ORCID:, Sathyendranath, S., Bourman, H. and Platt, T. (2013) The global distribution of phytoplankton size spectrum and size classes from their light-absorption spectra derived from satellite data. Remote Sensing of Environment, 139. pp. 185-197. ISSN 0034-4257

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1016/j.rse.2013.08.004


The absorption spectra of phytoplankton in the visible domain hold implicit information on the phytoplankton community structure. Here we use this information to retrieve quantitative information on phytoplankton size structure by developing a novel method to compute the exponent of an assumed power-law for their particle-size spectrum. This quantity, in combination with total chlorophyll-a concentration, can be used to estimate the fractional concentration of chlorophyll in any arbitrarily-defined size class of phytoplankton. We further define and derive expressions for two distinct measures of cell size of mixed populations, namely, the average spherical diameter of a bio-optically equivalent homogeneous population of cells of equal size, and the average equivalent spherical diameter of a population of cells that follow a power-law particle-size distribution. The method relies on measurements of two quantities of a phytoplankton sample: the concentration of chlorophyll-a, which is an operational index of phytoplankton biomass, and the total absorption coefficient of phytoplankton in the red peak of visible spectrum at 676 nm. A sensitivity analysis confirms that the relative errors in the estimates of the exponent of particle size spectra are reasonably low. The exponents of phytoplankton size spectra, estimated for a large set of in situ data from a variety of oceanic environments (~ 2400 samples), are within a reasonable range; and the estimated fractions of chlorophyll in pico-, nano- and micro-phytoplankton are generally consistent with those obtained by an independent, indirect method based on diagnostic pigments determined using high-performance liquid chromatography. The estimates of cell size for in situ samples dominated by different phytoplankton types (diatoms, prymnesiophytes, Prochlorococcus, other cyanobacteria and green algae) yield nominal sizes consistent with the taxonomic classification. To estimate the same quantities from satellite-derived ocean-colour data, we combine our method with algorithms for obtaining inherent optical properties from remote sensing. The spatial distribution of the size-spectrum exponent and the chlorophyll fractions of pico-, nano- and micro-phytoplankton estimated from satellite remote sensing are in agreement with the current understanding of the biogeography of phytoplankton functional types in the global oceans. This study contributes to our understanding of the distribution and time evolution of phytoplankton size structure in the global oceans.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:No Reading authors. Back catalogue items
Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Earth Systems Science
Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Department of Geography and Environmental Science
ID Code:33652

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