Sixty Years of Sverdrup: A Retrospective of Progress in the Study of Phytoplankton Blooms


One of the most dramatic large-scale features in the ocean is the seasonal greening of the North Atlantic in spring and summer due to the accumulation of phytoplankton biomass in the surface layer. In 1953, Harald Ulrik Sverdrup hypothesized a now canonical mechanism for the development and timing of phytoplankton blooms in the North Atlantic. Over the next 60 years, Sverdrup’s Critical Depth Hypothesis spurred progress in understanding of bloom dynamics and offered a valuable theoretical framework on which to build. In reviewing 60 years of literature, the authors trace the development of modern bloom initiation hypotheses, highlighting three case studies that illuminate the complexity, including both catalysts and impediments, of scientific progress in the wake of Sverdrup’s hypothesis. Most notably, these cases demonstrate that the evolution of our understanding of phytoplankton blooms was paced by access not only to technology but also to concurrent insights from several disciplines. This exploration of the trajectories and successes in bloom studies highlights the need for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations to address the complexity of phytoplankton bloom dynamics.