Seasonal Controls On Nearshore Dissolved Oxygen Variability and Hypoxia in a Coastal Embayment

Ryan K. Walter, Physics Department, California Polytechnic State University
Stephen A. Huie, Physics Department, California Polytechnic State University
Jon Christian P. Abraham, Physics Department, California Polytechnic State University
Alexis Paulska, Biological Sciences Department, California Polytechnic State University
Kristen A. Davis, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California
Thomas P. Connolley, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
Piero L. F. Mazzini, Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Ian Robbins, Physics Department, California Polytechnic State University


Declining dissolved oxygen (DO) is emerging as an increasingly important stressor in nearshore ecosystems, and there is a growing need to better understand DO dynamics and hypoxia risk in this highly variable environment. In this study, we collected data from monthly cruises on the inner shelf, continuous nearshore moorings inside and outside a small coastal upwelling embayment (San Luis Obispo Bay in Central California), and weekly phytoplankton measurements inside the bay during the upwelling season. Nearshore DO was generally dominated by low-frequency synoptic variability, with increased DO variance near the surface relative to the bottom and inside the bay compared to outside. Two nearshore hypoxic regimes were identified. In the first regime, which occurred during periods of strong upwelling in the spring across all nearshore sites, the nearshore bottom water temperature-DO (T-DO) relationship was aligned with that found offshore, suggesting hypoxia was driven by the direct advection and cross-shelf exchange of low DO subthermocline waters from the shelf. This period also coincided with minimal water-column stratification, small vertical DO differences, and a diatom-dominated phytoplankton assemblage. In the second regime, which occurred during summer months and was characterized by weaker upwelling, strong stratification, and dinoflagellate-dominated phytoplankton assemblage, the nearbottom T-DO relationship inside the bay deviated significantly from that on the shelf offshore. These hypoxic events inside the bay were likely driven by localized respiration and lack of ventilation of bottom waters due to strong stratification. Collectively, these observations reveal a shift in the strength and magnitude of physical versus biological processes driving nearshore DO dynamics. The high spatiotemporal variability of DO dynamics in upwelling bays means that they are likely to be at the forefront of ecosystem impacts of and adaptions to climate change, and may act as sentinel systems or “canaries on the coast.”