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Dissolved organic matter from tropical peatlands reduces shelf sea light availability in the Singapore Strait, Southeast Asia

Patrick Martin*, Nivedita Sanwlani, Tiffany Wan Qi Lee, Joel Meng Cheng Wong, Kristy Chang, Elizabeth Wing-See Wong, Soo Chin Liew

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Shelf seas provide valuable ecosystem services, but their productivity and ecological functioning depend critically on sunlight transmitted through the water column. Anthropogenic reductions in underwater light availability are thus a serious threat to coastal habitats. The flux of light-absorbing coloured dissolved organic matter (CDOM) from land to sea may have increased world-wide, but how this has altered the availability and spectral quality of light in shelf seas remains poorly known. We present time-series data from the Sunda Shelf in Southeast Asia, where the monsoon-driven reversal in ocean currents supplies water enriched in CDOM from tropical peatlands for part of the year, resulting in 5- to 10-fold seasonal variation in light absorption by CDOM. We show that this terrigenous CDOM can dominate underwater light absorption at wavelengths up to 500 nm, and shift the underwater irradiance spectrum towards longer wavelengths. The seasonal presence of terrigenous CDOM also causes the depth of 10% light penetration to shoal by 1–5 m, or 10–45%. We estimate that on average 0.6 m, or 25%, of this terrigenous CDOM-mediated shoaling might be attributable to the enhanced loss of dissolved organic matter following peatland disturbance. The seasonal change in the light environment is correlated with changes in phytoplankton absorption spectra that suggest a photo-acclimation response, and we infer that terrigenous CDOM likely contributes to limiting the depth distribution of photosynthetic corals. The results reveal an ecologically important but largely overlooked impact of human modifications to carbon fluxes that is likely increasingly important in coastal seas.