In this paper, we review the state of the art and major challenges in current efforts to incorporate biogeochemical functional groups into models that can be applied on basin-wide and global scales, with an emphasis on models that might ultimately be used to predict how biogeochemical cycles in the ocean will respond to global warming. We define the term “biogeochemical functional group” to refer to groups of organisms that mediate specific chemical reactions in the ocean. Thus, according to this definition, “functional groups” have no phylogenetic meaning—these are composed of many different species with common biogeochemical functions.
Substantial progress has been made in the last decade toward quantifying the rates of these various functions and understanding the factors that control them. For some of these groups, we have developed fairly sophisticated models that incorporate this understanding, e.g. for diazotrophs (e.g. Trichodesmium), silica producers (diatoms) and calcifiers (e.g. coccolithophorids and specifically Emiliania huxleyi). However, current representations of nitrogen fixation and calcification are incomplete, i.e., based primarily upon models of Trichodesmium and E. huxleyi, respectively, and many important functional groups have not yet been considered in open-ocean biogeochemical models. Progress has been made over the last decade in efforts to simulate dimethylsulfide (DMS) production and cycling (i.e., by dinoflagellates and prymnesiophytes) and denitrification, but these efforts are still in their infancy, and many significant problems remain.
One obvious gap is that virtually all functional group modeling efforts have focused on autotrophic microbes, while higher trophic levels have been completely ignored. It appears that in some cases (e.g., calcification), incorporating higher trophic levels may be essential not only for representing a particular biogeochemical reaction, but also for modeling export. Another serious problem is our tendency to model the organisms for which we have the most validation data (e.g., E. huxleyi and Trichodesmium) even when they may represent only a fraction of the biogeochemical functional group we are trying to represent.
When we step back and look at the paleo-oceanographic record, it suggests that oxygen concentrations have played a central role in the evolution and emergence of many of the key functional groups that influence biogeochemical cycles in the present-day ocean. However, more subtle effects are likely to be important over the next century like changes in silicate supply or turbulence that can influence the relative success of diatoms versus dinoflagellates, coccolithophorids and diazotrophs. In general, inferences drawn from the paleo-oceanographic record and theoretical work suggest that global warming will tend to favor the latter because it will give rise to increased stratification. However, decreases in pH and Fe supply could adversely impact coccolithophorids and diazotrophs in the future.
It may be necessary to include explicit dynamic representations of nitrogen fixation, denitrification, silicification and calcification in our models if our goal is predicting the oceanic carbon cycle in the future, because these processes appear to play a very significant role in the carbon cycle of the present-day ocean and they are sensitive to climate change. Observations and models suggest that it may also be necessary to include the DMS cycle to predict future climate, though the effects are still highly uncertain. We have learned a tremendous amount about the distributions and biogeochemical impact of bacteria in the ocean in recent years, yet this improved understanding has not yet been incorporated into many of our models.
All of these considerations lead us toward the development of increasingly complex models. However, recent quantitative model intercomparison studies suggest that continuing to add complexity and more functional groups to our ecosystem models may lead to decreases in predictive ability if the models are not properly constrained with available data. We also caution that capturing the present-day variability tells us little about how well a particular model can predict the future. If our goal is to develop models that can be used to predict how the oceans will respond to global warming, then we need to make more rigorous assessments of predictive skill using the available data.