Relationship of chlorophyll to phosphorus and nitrogen in nutrient-rich lakes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) commonly co-limit primary productivity in lakes, and chlorophyll a (Chl-a) is predicted to be greatest under high N, high P regimes. Because land use practices can alter N and P biogeochemical cycles in watersheds, it is unclear whether previously documented phytoplankton–nutrient relationships apply where landscapes are highly disturbed. Here, we analyzed a lake water quality database from an agricultural region to explore relationships among Chl-a, total N (TN), and total P (TP) under extreme nutrient concentrations. Chl-a was weakly related to TN when TP was ≤100 μg L−1 but displayed a stronger response to TN at higher TP. When TP exceeded 100 μg L−1, Chl-a increased with increasing TN until reaching a TN threshold of ~3 mg L−1 and decreased thereafter, resulting in a high nutrient, low Chl-a region that did not coincide with shifts in nutrient limitation, light availability, cellular Chl-a content, phytoplankton composition, or zooplankton grazing pressure. Beyond the threshold, nitrate comprised most of TN and occurred with reduced dissolved organic matter (DOM). These observations suggest that photolysis of nitrate may produce reactive oxygen species that damage DOM and phytoplankton. Reduction in N loading at high P could therefore increase Chl-a and decrease water clarity, resulting in an apparent worsening of water quality. Our data suggest that monitoring Chl-a or Secchi depth may fail to indicate water quality degradation by extreme nutrient concentrations. These findings highlight how extreme nutrient regimes in lakes can produce novel relationships between phytoplankton and nutrients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)385-400
Number of pages16
JournalInland Waters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this research was provided by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (Award # 2014ESDGSBMBalm0004) to JAD and CTF and by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1021525; EF-1065649) to JAD. We thank Iowa State University Limnology Laboratory professional scientists Amber Erickson, Dan Kendall, and Lisa Whitehouse who supervised the collection and analyses of all samples. We thank the numerous undergraduate field and laboratory technicians from Iowa State University, who have collected water samples and performed water quality analyses for this project. We also thank Yves T. Prairie and Peter R. Leavitt for suggesting alternate mechanisms that could be underlying the HNLC region.

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation [DEB-1021525; EF-1065649] and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources [2014ESDGSBMBalm004].


  • Chlorophyll a
  • Eutrophication
  • Lakes
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Relationship of chlorophyll to phosphorus and nitrogen in nutrient-rich lakes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this