Phytoplankton Spatial Variability in the River-Dominated Estuary, Apalachicola Bay, Florida

  • Natalie L. Geyer
  • Markus Huettel
  • Michael S. Wetz


In shallow estuaries with strong river influence, the short residence time and pronounced gradients generate an environment for plankton that differs substantially in its dynamics from that of the open ocean, and the question arises “How is phytoplankton biomass affected?” This study assesses the small-scale spatial and temporal distribution of phytoplankton in Apalachicola Bay, a shallow bar-built estuary in the Florida Panhandle. Phytoplankton peaks were characterized to gain insights into the processes affecting spatial heterogeneity in biomass. Chlorophyll a (Chl a) distribution at 50-m spatial resolution was mapped using a flow-through sensor array, Dataflow©, operated from a boat that sampled four transects across the bay every 2 weeks for 16 months. Chl a peaks exceeding background concentrations had an average width of 1.3 ± 0.7 km delineated by an average gradient of 3.0 ± 6.0 μg Chl a L−1 km−1. Magnitude of E-W wind, velocity of N-S wind, tidal stage, and temperature affected peak characteristics. Phytoplankton contained in the peaks contributed 7.7 ± 2.7% of the total integrated biomass observed along the transects during the study period. The river plume front was frequently a location of elevated Chl a, which shifted in response to river discharge. The results demonstrate that despite the shallow water column, river flushing, and strong wind and tidal mixing, distinct patchiness develops that should be taken into consideration in ecological studies and when assessing productivity of such ecosystems.


Phytoplankton Patchiness Estuaries Chlorophyll Dataflow Spatial variability Apalachicola Bay Florida USA 



We thank the Apalachicola National Estuary Research Reserve (NERR) staff for providing boat time and assistance to conduct transect sampling, Alex Davis (FSU) and Emily Hutchinson (FSU) for helping with field sampling and lab analysis, Chris Madden (SFWMD), Dave Oliff (FSU) and Alan Michaels (FSU) for technical support of the project, as well as Bill Parker (FSU) for helpful feedback about the peak analysis method. We thank the associate editor and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions that helped to improve this manuscript.

Funding Information

This study was supported by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration NERR Graduate Research Fellowship (grant number NA11NOS4200083) to NLG and by the Florida State University.

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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Natalie L. Geyer
    • 1
  • Markus Huettel
    • 1
  • Michael S. Wetz
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric ScienceFlorida State UniversityFloridaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Life SciencesTexas A&M University-Corpus ChristiCorpus ChristiUSA

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