Ocean scientist Kenneth Bruland recognized for pioneering research paper

The 2023 John H. Martin Award from the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography celebrates an influential 1998 paper on the role of iron in coastal ecosystems

Kenneth Bruland

Kenneth Bruland, professor emeritus of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz, is known for his pioneering research on the role of iron and other trace elements in the growth of phytoplankton, the microscopic algae that form the base of marine food webs. In 1998, Bruland and coauthor David Hutchins, then at the University of Delaware, published an influential paper on iron as a limiting nutrient in coastal ecosystems, for which they are now being recognized by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) with the 2023 John H. Martin Award.

The Martin Award is given to one paper each year that has led to fundamental shifts in research focus and interpretation of a large body of previous observations. It will be presented to Hutchins and Bruland during the 2023 ASLO Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, in June 2023.

The 1998 paper by Hutchins and Bruland, “Iron-limited diatom growth and Si:N uptake ratios in a coastal upwelling regime,” was published in Nature. The authors examined factors that constrain the flow of carbon through ecosystems—an integral part of limnology and oceanography—focusing on areas along the central coast of California where coastal upwelling brings deep water to the surface. They showed that the availability of iron limits the growth of phytoplankton in these areas. At the time, such limitations were not thought to exist in these otherwise nutrient-rich coastal upwelling zones.

In addition, Hutchins and Bruland provided insight on the effects of iron availability in relation to silica to nitrogen ratios, and how this shapes diatom communities and eventual carbon export. With more than 1,100 citations to date, the paper has been incorporated into countless introductory textbooks and remains a foundational paper in aquatic science.

“Hutchins and Bruland’s examination of iron availability, as well as silica and nitrogen assimilation, has fundamentally shifted our understanding of coastal primary production and nutrient biogeochemistry,” said ASLO President Patricia Glibert. “Twenty-five years later, Hutchins and Bruland (1998) continues to be an integral paper that has guided our understanding on coastal primary production and a must-read for students and seasoned researchers alike.”