National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Remote Sensing Letters Vol. 3, No. 6, November 2012, 471–479


U.S. Government Work


A satellite multi-sensor approach is used to analyse the biological response of open ocean regions of the subtropical gyres to changes in physical forcing. Thirteen years (1998–2010) of Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) chlorophyll-a (chl-a) data, combined with concurrent satellite records of sea-surface temperature (SST) and sea level height, were analysed to investigate the seasonal and inter-annual variability of chl-a concentration within these immense so-called ocean deserts. The seasonal variability of chl-a within the gyres is driven mostly by the warming/cooling of surface waters. Summer warming promotes shallower mixed layers and lower chl-a due to a reduction of vertical mixing and consequently a decrease in nutrient supply. The opposite happens during the winter cooling period. Therefore, long-term trends in SST have the potential to cause an impact on the inter-annual variability of chl-a. Our analyses show that, during the 13 whole years of SeaWiFS data record, the North Pacific, Indian Ocean and North Atlantic gyres experienced a decrease in chl-a of 9%, 12% and 11%, respectively, with corresponding SST increases of 0.27˚C, 0.42˚C and 0.32˚C, respectively. The South Pacific and South Atlantic gyres also showed warming trends but with weak positive trends in chl-a that are not statistically significant. We hypothesize that the warming of surface waters in these two gyres is counterbalanced by other interacting physical- and biological-driving mechanisms, as indicated in previous studies.