Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre: New Views of an Old Ocean

David M. Karl, Matthew J. Church

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) is one of the largest biomes on Earth. It has a semi-enclosed surface area of about 2 × 107 km2 and mean depth of nearly 5 km and includes a broad range of habitats from warm, light-saturated, nutrient-starved surface waters to the cold, nutrient-rich abyss. Microorganisms are found throughout the water column and are vertically stratified by their genetically determined metabolic capabilities that establish physiological tolerances to temperature, light, pressure, as well as organic and inorganic growth substrates. Despite the global significance of the NPSG for energy and matter transformations and its role in the oceanic carbon cycle, it is grossly undersampled and not well characterized with respect to ecosystem structure and dynamics. Since October 1988, interdisciplinary teams of scientists from the University of Hawaii and around the world have been investigating the NPSG ecosystem at Station ALOHA (A Long-term Oligotrophic Habitat Assessment), a site chosen to be representative of this expansive oligotrophic habitat, with a focus on microbial processes and biogeochemistry. At the start of this comprehensive field study, the NPSG was thought to be a “Climax” community with a relatively stable plankton community structure and relatively low variability in key microbiological rates and processes. Now, after nearly three decades of observations and experimentation we present a new view of this old ocean, one that highlights temporal variability in ecosystem processes across a broad range of scales from diel to decadal and beyond. Our revised paradigm is built on the strength of high-quality time-series observations, on insights from the application of state-of-the-art –omics techniques (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics) and, more recently, the discoveries of novel microorganisms and metabolic processes. Collectively, these efforts have led to a new understanding of trophic dynamics and population interactions in the NPSG. A comprehensive understanding of the environmental controls on microbial rates and processes, from genomes to biomes, will be required to inform the scientific community and the public at large about the potential impacts of human-induced climate change. The pace of new discovery, and the importance of integrating this new knowledge into conceptual paradigms and predictive models, is an enormous contemporary challenge with great scientific and societal relevance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-457
Number of pages25
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2017


  • North Pacific Subtropical Gyre
  • biogeochemistry
  • climate change
  • microbial oceanography
  • oceanic carbon cycle
  • primary production
  • time series


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