Net Primary Production in
Philip W. Boyd (New Zealand), Svein Sundby (Norway), Hans-Otto Pörtner (Germany)
Net Primary Production (NPP) is the rate of photosynthetic carbon ﬁxation minus the fraction of
ﬁxed carbon used for cellular respiration and maintenance by autotrophic planktonic microbes
and benthic plants (Sections 6.2.1, 6.3.1). Environmental drivers of NPP include light, nutrients,
micronutrients, CO2, and temperature (Figure PP-1a). These drivers, in turn, are inﬂuenced by
oceanic and atmospheric processes, including cloud cover; sea ice extent; mixing by winds, waves,
and currents; convection; density stratiﬁcation; and various forms of upwelling induced by eddies,
frontal activity, and boundary currents. Temperature has multiple roles as it inﬂuences rates
of phytoplankton physiology and heterotrophic bacterial recycling of nutrients, in addition to
stratiﬁcation of the water column and sea ice extent (Figure PP-1a). Climate change is projected
to strongly impact NPP through a multitude of ways that depend on the regional and local
physical settings (WGI AR5, Chapter 3), and on ecosystem structure and functioning (medium
conﬁdence; Sections 6.3.4, 6.5.1). The inﬂuence of environmental drivers on NPP causes as much
as a 10-fold variation in regional productivity with nutrient-poor subtropical waters and light-
limited Arctic waters at the lower range and productive upwelling regions and highly eutrophic
coastal regions at the upper range (Figure PP-1b).
The oceans currently provide ~50 × 1015 g C yr–1, or about half of global NPP (Field et al., 1998).
Global estimates of NPP are obtained mainly from satellite remote sensing (Section 6.1.2),
which provides unprecedented spatial and temporal coverage, and may be validated regionally
against oceanic measurements. Observations reveal signiﬁcant changes in rates of NPP when
environmental controls are altered by episodic natural perturbations, such as volcanic eruptions
enhancing iron supply, as observed in high-nitrate low-chlorophyll waters of the Northeast Paciﬁc
(Hamme et al., 2010). Climate variability can drive pronounced changes in NPP (Chavez et al.,
2011), such as from El Niño to La Niña transitions in Equatorial Paciﬁc, when vertical nutrient and
trace element supply are enhanced (Chavez et al., 1999).
Multi-year time series records of NPP have been used to assess spatial trends in NPP in recent
decades. Behrenfeld et al. (2006), using satellite data, reported a prolonged and sustained global
NPP decrease of 190 × 1012 g C yr–1, for the period 1999–2005—an annual reduction of 0.57%
of global NPP. In contrast, a time series of directly measured NPP between 1988 and 2007 by
Saba et al. (2010) (i.e., in situ incubations using the radiotracer 14C-bicarbonate) revealed an
increase (2% yr–1) in NPP for two low-latitude open ocean sites. This discrepancy between in situ
and remotely sensed NPP trends points to uncertainties in either the methodology used and/
or the extent to which discrete sites are representative of oceanic provinces (Saba et al., 2010,
2011). Modeling studies have subsequently revealed that the <15-year archive of satellite-
Net Primary Production in the Ocean
• Trace metals
Euphotic zone (0–100 m)
• Vertical mixing
NPP (g C m–² y–¹)
300 250 200 150 100 50 0
Figure PP-1 |
(a) Environmental factors controlling Net Primary Production (NPP). NPP is controlled mainly by three basic processes: (1) light conditions in the surface ocean, that
is, the photic zone where photosynthesis occurs; (2) upward ﬂux of nutrients and micronutrients from underlying waters into the photic zone, and (3) regeneration of nutrients and
micronutrients via the breakdown and recycling of organic material before it sinks out of the photic zone. All three processes are inﬂuenced by physical, chemical, and biological
processes and vary across regional ecosystems. In addition, water temperature strongly inﬂuences the upper rate of photosynthesis for cells that are resource-replete. Predictions of
alteration of primary productivity under climate change depend on correct parameterizations and simulations of each of these variables and processes for each region. (b) Annual
composite map of global areal NPP rates (derived from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Aqua satellite climatology from 2003–2012; NPP was calculated
with the Carbon-based Productivity Model (CbPM; Westberry et al., 2008)). Overlaid is a grid of (thin black lines) that represent 51 distinct global ocean biogeographical provinces
(after Longhurst, 1998 and based on Boyd and Doney, 2002). The characteristics and boundaries of each province are primarily set by the underlying regional ocean physics and
chemistry. White areas = no data. (Figure courtesy of Toby Westberry (OSU) and Ivan Lima (WHOI), satellite data courtesy of NASA Ocean Biology Processing Group.)
Net Primary Production in the Ocean
Arrigo, K.R. and G.L. van Dijken, 2011: Secular trends in Arctic Ocean net primary production. Journal of Geophysical Research, 116(C9), C09011,
Beaulieu, C., S.A. Henson, J.L. Sarmiento, J.P. Dunne, S.C. Doney, R.R. Rykaczewski, and L. Bopp, 2013: Factors challenging our ability to detect long-term trends in ocean
chlorophyll. Biogeosciences, 10(4), 2711-2724.
Behrenfeld, M.J., R.T. O’Malley, D.A. Siegel, C.R. McClain, J.L. Sarmiento, G.C. Feldman, A.J. Milligan, P.G. Falkowski, R.M. Letelier, and E.S. Boss, 2006: Climate-driven
trends in contemporary ocean productivity. Nature, 444(7120), 752-755.
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ecosystems in the 21st century: projections with CMIP5 models. Biogeosciences, 10, 6225-6245.
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Boyd, P.W. and S.C. Doney, 2002: Modelling regional responses by marine pelagic ecosystems to global climate change. Geophysical Research Letters, 29(16), 53-1–53-4,
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derived NPP is insufﬁcient to distinguish climate-change mediated shifts in NPP from those driven by natural climate variability (Henson et al.,
2010; Beaulieu et al., 2013). Although multi-decadal, the available time series of oceanic NPP measurements are also not of sufﬁcient duration
relative to the time scales of longer-term climate variability modes as for example Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO), with periodicity of
60-70 years, Figure 6-1). Recent attempts to synthesize longer (i.e., centennial) records of chlorophyll as a proxy for phytoplankton stocks (e.g.,
Boyce et al., 2010) have been criticized for relying on questionable linkages between different proxies for chlorophyll over a century of records
(e.g., Rykaczewski and Dunne, 2011).
Models in which projected climate change alters the environmental drivers of NPP provide estimates of spatial changes and of the rate of
change of NPP. For example, four global coupled climate–ocean biogeochemical Earth System Models (WGI AR5 Chapter 6) projected an
increase in NPP at high latitudes as a result of alleviation of light and temperature limitation of NPP, particularly in the high-latitude biomes
(Steinacher et al., 2010). However, this regional increase in NPP was more than offset by decreases in NPP at lower latitudes and at mid-
latitudes due to the reduced input of macronutrients into the photic zone. The reduced mixed-layer depth and reduced rate of circulation may
cause a decrease in the ﬂux of macronutrients to the euphotic zone (Figure 6-2). These changes to oceanic conditions result in a reduction in
global mean NPP by 2 to 13% by 2100 relative to 2000 under a high emission scenario (Polovina et al., 2011; SRES (Special Report on Emission
Scenarios) A2, between RCP6.0 and RCP8.5). This is consistent with a more recent analysis based on 10 Earth System Models (Bopp et al.,
2013), which project decreases in global NPP by 8.6 (±7.9), 3.9 (±5.7), 3.6 (±5.7), and 2.0 (±4.1) % in the 2090s relative to the 1990s, under
the scenarios RCP8.5, RCP6.0, RCP4.5, and RCP2.6, respectively. However, the magnitude of projected changes varies widely between models
(e.g., from 0 to 20% decrease in NPP globally under RCP 8.5). The various models show very large differences in NPP at regional scales (i.e.,
provinces, see Figure PP-1b).
Model projections had predicted a range of changes in global NPP from an increase (relative to preindustrial rates) of up to 8.1% under an
intermediate scenario (SRES A1B, similar to RCP6.0; Sarmiento et al., 2004; Schmittner et al., 2008) to a decrease of 2-20% under the SRES A2
emission scenario (Steinacher et al., 2010). These projections did not consider the potential contribution of primary production derived from
atmospheric nitrogen ﬁxation in tropical and subtropical regions, favoured by increasing stratiﬁcation and reduced nutrient inputs from mixing.
This mechanism is potentially important, although such episodic increases in nitrogen ﬁxation are not sustainable without the presence of
excess phosphate (e.g., Moore et al., 2009; Boyd et al., 2010). This may lead to an underestimation of NPP (Mohr et al., 2010; Mulholland et al.,
2012; Wilson et al., 2012), however, the extent of such underestimation is unknown (Luo et al., 2012).
Care must be taken when comparing global, provincial (e.g., low-latitude waters, e.g., Behrenfeld et al., 2006) and regional trends in NPP
derived from observations, as some regions have additional local environmental inﬂuences such as enhanced density stratiﬁcation of the upper
ocean from melting sea ice. For example, a longer phytoplankton growing season, due to more sea ice–free days, may have increased NPP
(based on a regionally validated time-series of satellite NPP) in Arctic waters (Arrigo and van Dijken, 2011) by an average of 8.1x1012 g C yr−1
between 1998 and 2009. Other regional trends in NPP are reported in Sections 30.5.1 to 30.5.6. In addition, although future model projections
of global NPP from different models (Steinacher et al., 2010; Bopp et al., 2013) are comparable, regional projections from each of the models
differ substantially. This raises concerns as to which aspect(s) of the different model NPP parameterizations are responsible for driving regional
differences in NPP, and moreover, how accurate model projections are of global NPP.
From a global perspective, open ocean NPP will decrease moderately by 2100 under both low- (SRES B1 or RCP4.5) and high-emission
scenarios (medium conﬁdence; SRES A2 or RCPs 6.0, 8.5, Sections 6.3.4, 6.5.1), paralleled by an increase in NPP at high latitudes and
a decrease in the tropics (medium conﬁdence). However, there is limited evidence and low agreement on the direction, magnitude and
differences of a change of NPP in various ocean regions and coastal waters projected by 2100 (low conﬁdence).
Net Primary Production in the Ocean
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This cross-chapter box should be cited as: