Light absorption by marine cyanobacteria affects tropical climate mean state and variability

Paulsen, Hanna; Ilyina, Tatiana; Jungclaus, Johann H.; Six, Katharina D.; Stemmler, Irene

Observations indicate that positively buoyant marine cyanobacteria, which are abundant throughout the tropical and subtropical ocean, have a strong local heating effect due to light absorption at the ocean surface. How these local changes in radiative heating affect the climate system on the large scale is unclear. We use the Max Planck Institute Earth System Model (MPI-ESM), include light absorption by cyanobacteria, and find a considerable cooling effect on tropical sea surface temperature (SST) in the order of 0.5 K on a climatological timescale. This cooling is caused by local shading of subtropical subsurface water by cyanobacteria that is upwelled at the Equator and in eastern boundary upwelling systems. Implications for the climate system include a westward shift of the Walker circulation and a weakening of the Hadley circulation. The amplitude of the seasonal cycle of SST is increased in large parts of the tropical ocean by up to 25 %, and the tropical Pacific interannual variability is enhanced by approx. 20 %. This study emphasizes the sensitivity of the tropical climate system to light absorption by cyanobacteria due to its regulative effect on tropical SST. Generally, including phytoplankton-dependent light attenuation instead of a globally uniform attenuation depth improves some of the major model temperature biases, indicating the relevance of taking this biophysical feedback into account in climate models.

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Paulsen, Hanna / Ilyina, Tatiana / Jungclaus, Johann H. / et al: Light absorption by marine cyanobacteria affects tropical climate mean state and variability. 2018. Copernicus Publications.

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Rechteinhaber: Hanna Paulsen et al.

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