Stirring, Mixing, Growing: Microscale Processes Change Larger Scale Phytoplankton Dynamics

Francesco Paparella, Marcello Vichi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The quantitative description of marine systems is constrained by a major issue of scale separation: phytoplankton production processes occur at sub-centimeter scales, while the contribution to the Earth's biogeochemical cycles is expressed at much larger scales, up to the planetary one. In spite of vastly improved computing power and observational capabilities, the modeling approach has remained anchored to an old view that sees the microscales as unable to substantially affect larger ones. The lack of a widespread theoretical appreciation of the interactions between vastly different scales has led to the proliferation of numerical models with uncertain predictive capabilities. In this paper, we use the phenology of phytoplankton blooms as one example of a macroscopic ecosystem feature affected by microscale interactions. We describe two distinct mechanisms that produce patchiness within a productive water column: turbulent entrainment of less-productive water at the base of the mixed layer, and stirring by slow turbulence of a vertical phytoplankton gradient sustained by depth-dependent light availability. In current eddy-diffusive models, patchiness produced in this way is wiped out very rapidly, because the time scales of irreversible mixing largely overlap those of mechanical stirring. We propose a novel Lagrangian modeling framework that allows for the existence of microscale patchiness, even when that is not fully resolved. We show, with a mixture of theoretical arguments and numerical simulations of increasing realism, how the presence of patchiness, in turn, affects larger-scale properties, demonstrating that the timing of phytoplankton blooms and vertical variability of chlorophyll in the oceanic upper layers is determined by the mutual interplay between the stirring, mixing and growing processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number654
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
StatePublished - Aug 27 2020


  • Bio-Geo-Chemical Argo (BGC-Argo)
  • aquacosms
  • biogeochemistry
  • irreversible mixing
  • lagrangian particle
  • model bias and bias correction
  • phytoplankton bloom
  • plankton modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Ocean Engineering


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