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The Low Zone—A Science Focus! Inquiry Study

The image below was sent to us by Matt Reuer of Princeton University as part of an inquiry about the use of SeaWiFS data in a particular software package. When we looked at this image, we were immediately intrigued by the sinuous area of low productivity that appears north of the Antarctic continent [well, everything is north of the Antarctic continent] between 60 and 90 east latitude. We called this area "The Low Zone". (Note that the false-color palette used to generate the image is different than the standard palette used by the SeaWiFS Project.)

polar projection excerpt, December 2002

Spatial excerpt from a austral polar projection of SeaWiFS chlorophyll data for December 2002.

When we then examined SeaWiFS monthly Level 3 images for each of the months of December since the beginning of the mission, we realized that this area of low productivity is a definite feature of the circulation of the Southern Ocean. This initial examination undermined some of our more fanciful hypotheses, such as the possibility that this area was the track of a large tabular iceberg. Below are extracts from the SeaWiFS monthly December images for this area from December 1997 to December 2003. The images are shown half-size; click on each to see the full-size version.

December 1997
Level 3 image extract, Southern Ocean, December 1997

December 1998
Level 3 image extract, Southern Ocean, December 1998

December 1999
Level 3 image extract, Southern Ocean, December 1999

December 2000
Level 3 image extract, Southern Ocean, December 2000

December 2001
Level 3 image extract, Southern Ocean, December 2001

December 2002
Level 3 image extract, Southern Ocean, December 2002

December 2003
Level 3 image extract, Southern Ocean, December 2003

On re-examination, it appears that this feature is due to the circulation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) around the relatively shallow Kerguelen Plateau. The island of Kerguelen is the small and isolated black spot that appears on the far western side of each image, about halfway between the top and bottom. The island is definitely associated with nearly elevated chlorophyll concentrations.

The Inquiry Study: What we would like to do now (March 2004) is to solicit explanations of the cause of the "Low Zone" from the oceanographic community. This Web page will be released at the end of February 2004, just before the author goes on a two-week hiatus. During that time, members of the oceanographic community are invited to send explanations (and any accompanying imagery or graphics) describing as simply and completely as possible what is happening here. As part of the explanation, it would be interesting to know:

  • What are the basics of the interaction between physical oceanography (ocean circulation) and biological activity in this region?
  • Is there a specific reason that "The Low Zone" appears particularly well-defined in December 2002, and is significantly less visible in other years, such as December 2000?
  • Why are the chlorophyll concentrations so much higher and the productive region larger in December 2003?
  • Are there any other areas in the world ocean where a similar phenomenon occurs, or is this area unique?

March update:

Contributions to "The Low Zone" were gratefully received from Michel Rixen (NATO/SACLANT Undersea Research Centre), Johann Lutjeharms (Department of Oceanography, University of Cape Town), and Raymond Pollard (Southampton Oceanography Centre).

Rixen indicated that the "Low Zone" appears to be a frontal instability that is generated by horizontal pressure gradients within the ACC system. Instabilities generate mesoscale fronts that provide nutrients to the surface, and which therefore generate increased primary production. This mechanism is likely responsible for the generation of the persistent "downstream" elevated region of productivity, i.e., the region to the east of Kerguelen that extends to an area south of western Australia.

Lutjeharms comments on the one of the primary features of the biological system in the Southern Ocean, which Pollard expanded upon. Lutjeharms and colleagues have been conducting research in the Prince Edward Islands, which are located to the west of the Kerguelen and Crozet archipelagos. Productivity here, as well as in the oceanic waters near Kerguelen, is limited by the availability of iron. This makes the general Southern Ocean a "high nutrient low chlorophyll (HNLC)" region, as noted by Pollard. Lutjeharms suggests, noting that more research is required, that the Prince Edward Islands and Kerguelen may generate "island effect" productivity by providing a source of iron to the adjacent waters. Lutjeharms notes that one possible source of iron is the fresh water runoff, which passes through the droppings of millions of seabirds, thus possibly supplying iron and other nutrients in a low-salinity buoyant plume of water that would stay near the surface and enhance productivity.

Pollard provided additional information on the characteristic HNLC nature of Southern Ocean waters. The "Low Zone" is not unique; other areas (such as the Bellingshausen Sea) are also characterized by low productivity. Thus, the "Low Zone" is an area where the low productivity waters around Antarctica are being transported northeastward in the ACC system, and the low chlorophyll concentration contrasts markedly with thehigher productivity waters north of them. Therefore, like Lutjeharms, Pollard indicates that the focus of research is on the generation of the higher productivity regions near the islands.

Pollard's preferred explanation, which will be investigated by two upcoming research expeditions (see below) is that the iron is derived from the seafloor, brought to the surface in shallow waters due to turbulent mixing processes in the water column.(Interestingly, this is the same explanation for the extended plume of productivity near the Galapagos archipelago in the tropical Pacific Ocean.) The "Low Zone" is an oceanic region where the local bathymetry—otherwise known as the depth of the water—is too deep to bring iron to the surface, according to Pollard.

Now a bit more information on the currents around Kerguelen: NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-6 describes a survey of cetacean habitat in the Southern Ocean. The southeast edge of the Kerguelen Plateau was a popular area for both sperm and minke whales, and 50% of humpback whale sightings were also associated with the Kerguelen Plateau. The underlying physical oceanography which makes this region popular with cetaceans is due to the interaction of the Southern Front of the ACC and the southern water mass boundary [Southern Boundary] of the ACC. (The Southern Front is at the surface, while the southern water mass boundary is subsurface.) In this region, the Southern Boundary moves to higher latitudes, and causes warm, nutrient rich waters of the Upper Circumpolar Deep Water (UCDW) to reach the surface mixed layer, partly due to interaction with the Kerguelen Plateau. The result is increased productivity by phytoplankton (diatoms), which are consumed by krill (euphausid zooplankton), which are eaten by whales—and thus the Kerguelen Plateau is where the whales are.

New links:

We aren't done yet; we would appreciate additional information and assessment of these ideas. Please submit contributions to the email address To aid processing of the contributions, please put "The Low Zone" in the Subject: line.

We look forward to contributions from anyone who wishes to participate in our "inquiry study".

Kerguelen Island

Kerguelen Island is one of the last great relatively unexplored locations in the world. This is due partly to its isolation, as it can only be reached by ship. It is also due to the harsh weather that it is characteristic of the region. There is a small French research station on the island, but the island is mainly home to penguins, seals, and elephant seals. (There is even an elephant seal crossing sign at the research station.) The author of this article was very fortunate to visit the research station on Kerguelen Island during a research and supply cruise in February 1985.

See the Links section below for a few links to Web sites about Kerguelen. Kerguelen is still an active volcanic province; expeditions to the interior have discovered fumaroles and hot springs.

Acknowledgments to all contributors will be placed here!



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