The mission of the Phytoplankton Laboratory at SERC is to increase understanding about the relationship of phytoplankton to their environment. Using the Rhode River and Chesapeake Bay as a focal site, the Phytoplankton Lab conducts both long term observational studies and manipulative experiments to discover and model the causal mechanisms regulating the primary productivity and population dynamics of phytoplankton, as well as the reciprocal effects of phytoplankton on the estuarine environment. Comparative studies at locations around the world help to generalize and broaden the impact of findings derived from the core site.

The common factor linking these topics is an interest in the role that land-sea interactions at local and regional scales have in structuring and regulating plankton communities and regulating water quality in estuaries. The long range goal of the phytoplankton program is to develop a predictive understanding of plankton communities in shallow estuarine systems, expressed as mathematical models of plankton dynamics in relation to terrestrial discharge, atmospheric inputs, mixing, and ecological interactions. As that process unfolds, interim models representing the best understanding to date are applied to real world problems of eutrophication and water quality created by human habitation of the coastal zone.

Research on phytoplankton communities at SERC contributes to general questions of enduring significance to the fields of ecology and estuarine science. Such questions include:  

  • What are the organizing principles, or fundamental physical and biological processes, that determine the flow of energy and cycling of matter in ecosystems?
  • What are the long term implications for ecosystem integrity and sustainability of increasing human population density in the coastal zone?
  • How do land use practices and management efforts interact with natural disturbances and climatological cycles to affect estuarine water quality and suitability for ecologically (and economically) important species?